WELLINGTON (Reuters) - While the only measure of success in New Zealand will be how the British and Irish Lions fare against the All Blacks, coach Warren Gatland knows Saturday’s game against the Canterbury Crusaders could have huge implications for the remainder of the 10-match tour.
The visitors delivered an unconvincing win against the semi-professional Provincial Barbarians in their opening game and on Wednesday lost to the Auckland Blues, New Zealand’s worst-performing Super Rugby side this season.
The Crusaders always loomed as the toughest opponents of the opening 10 days and Gatland has decided to field what appears to be the strongest Lions side yet in a bid avoid what would be a dispiriting second defeat so early on the tour.
Should the Crusaders inflict defeat on such a strong side, it could leave the Lions in disarray and send Gatland scurrying back the drawing board to sketch out a Plan B with only three matches to iron out the details before facing the All Blacks.
”It would be disappointing to lose back-to-back matches,“ Gatland told reporters in Christchurch. ”The challenge is to come together as quick as we can.
“It’s a great test for us and preparation. We are trying to keep a few things back behind closed doors.”
While Gatland may indeed be keeping a few things back, in truth there is very little time for the Lions to get things right as they build through the tour towards that all-important first test against the world champions on June 24.
The visitors have so far failed to show the intensity, skill execution and cohesiveness that their 20,000 travelling fans had expected from day one in New Zealand.
While the Lions demonstrated a stiff defence against the Blues at Eden Park on Wednesday, they must capitalise on their scoring opportunities, create more with the ball in hand, and not rely solely on their kicking game to create pressure.
And they need to score tries.
Tour captain Sam Warburton has said they would not beat the All Blacks in the three-test series unless they scored more than 20 points per game. However, they failed to breach that mark against the Barbarians and Blues and scored just one try in both those games.
On Saturday, the Crusaders represent a considerable step up in intensity with coach Scott Robertson fielding all of his All Blacks, with six in the pack alone.
The Lions have surprisingly failed to dominate in the scrum and with the Crusaders boasting what is likely to be the All Blacks front row for the first test, that contest will be keenly watched.
The seven-times Super Rugby champions have also been more expansive this year under Robertson, but he said it would be churlish not to adapt to what the Lions threw at them.
”We will be smart about it. We also understand that with the potential test match focus of it, we have to adapt,“ Robertson said. ”If we have to go to set-piece, we will.
“If we have to throw the ball as well, we will.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford