Gregor Paul: Loss to Ireland has primed All Blacks for Lions onslaught
Gatland’s men may struggle to cope with high expectations All Blacks are used to
“If the All Blacks have a point of vulnerability, it has typically been their first outing of the season.” Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions should take it as a mark of respect that the All Blacks have scrambled a game against Samoa ahead of the Test series.
If the All Blacks have a point of vulnerability, it has typically been their first outing of the season. Even the mighty All Blacks aren’t instantly brilliant and they battle as hard as any other side for cohesion in their first Test of the year.
Normally they just have to suck that up. Come straight out of Super Rugby with barely a week to prepare against the likes of Ireland, England and France.
And they have had to ride their luck in recent years to avoid defeat. Really ride it and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen doesn’t fancy they would get away with a win if they came in cold against the Lions.
So Samoa have been invited to Auckland ahead of the first Test so the All Blacks can chuck out all the gremlins in the works and be closer to third gear than first when they take on the Lions the following week.
As much as that’s about respect with Hansen genuine in his belief that this British & Irish Lions squad is possibly the best assembled, it’s also reflective of the All Blacks’ desire to take their game to another level in 2017.
The loss to Ireland last year in Chicago was not the national travesty some may have suspected. Far from it. Losing proved to be a cathartic moment for the All Blacks where they could reset the dial and have another look at what they were doing.
They spotted a few things they didn’t like and chief among them was a tendency to begin Tests with a passive attitude of sitting back and waiting for the opposition to take the game to them.
Such an approach would be disastrous against the Lions. Whatever Warren Gatland may have said about coming to New Zealand with a desire to play expansive rugby, no one within the All Blacks is buying it.
The All Blacks expect to be targeted at the set piece and in the collisions, with the Lions looking to drive mauls and bash their solid-looking midfield up the middle of the park on those occasions when Johnny Sexton isn’t kicking it up in the air.
It won’t be pretty or overly ambitious, but the All Blacks know – because Ireland showed them – that it can be effective. They know they can be beaten by a team playing smothering rugby that turns the screw and builds the pressure – and that they are especially vulnerable to it if they let themselves be physically dominated the way they were in the United States last year.
But what they also know is that if they can stand up to the physical onslaught, make sure they win their own lineout ball and enter collisions on their terms, they have a significantly more exciting attacking portfolio than the Lions.
Already, both British and Irish and New Zealand media are viewing the series as a clash between a physical, set-piece juggernaut and an expansive, counter-attacking All Blacks.
Cope with pressure
To some extent that is probably true but an increasing number of New Zealanders are beginning to buy into Hansen’s assertion that there is a much bigger element to the tour – which is the ability of the Lions to cope with pressure and expectation.
Pressure is a constant for the All Blacks. A nation expects them to win every Test, be it against Georgia, Italy, Australia or the Lions.
As defence coach Wayne Smith said recently: “Everyone says that this [Lions tour] is a pinnacle event but every time you pull on the All Black jersey it is a pinnacle event.
“It used to frustrate me when I was coaching with Steve [Hansen] and Graham [Henry] between 2004-2011. We won 89 games out of 100 or something but we weren’t any good until we won the World Cup despite all the other wins.
“We see every game in its own identity and it has got huge significance every time you pull a jersey on. It will be a great series.”
The point the All Blacks are making is that the series is business as usual for them, but for many of the Lions squad, they will be facing pressures they have had little exposure to.
And it won’t just be in the Test series. New Zealand in winter is one of the least hospitable rugby territories on the planet.
The Lions have taken on a schedule that Henry, and many others, feel is “suicidal” and it is hard to disagree.
New Zealand is in the midst of a golden era. Their Super Rugby sides, with or without their All Blacks, are playing a dangerously good brand of rugby. It seems at the moment that every player in New Zealand can pull a rabbit out of the hat.
The Lions might find that five games into their tour they have only won twice and that’s when Hansen will twist the knife.
That’s when he will start to question why Gatland took so few Scots. That’s when he’ll start to question whether there is dissension in the ranks.
He was the All Blacks assistant coach in 2005 and saw for himself how quickly disharmony can spread through the Lions and how one incident can change everything.
From being welcome guests for most of the tour in 2005, New Zealanders went a little cold on the Lions after the first Test and the infamous Brian O’Driscoll incident.
Everyone knew the All Blacks were in the wrong and Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu should have been disciplined. But the judicial process was followed and while everyone could understand why the Lions would be incredulous about the outcome, their decision to react with a spin campaign masterminded by Alastair Campbell lost them every inch of moral high ground.
It also earned the Lions the full ire of the All Blacks and their riposte was to deliver a stunning performance in the second Test, serving as further evidence that the home side relish being under pressure.
“The Lions would be foolish to think that there’s not an expectation there for them to do well,” Hansen said recently.
“There will be a massive expectation on them. If you’re a Lions fan, you’d look at it and say, ‘We’ve got four countries going into one against the opposition, we should be able to beat these blokes’. That is an expectation to be dealt with.
“We have our own expectations. People expect us to win, too. We don’t get to avoid it. But it’s something that we live with all the time. And have had to learn to deal with. And the Lions will have to learn to deal with it. And I’m not sure [how and if they can deal with it].”
Gregor Paul is the New Zealand Herald on Sunday’s rugby correspondent