‘Messy Monday’ step one as Lions look to establish right tone
Lions tours are probably doomed to fail unless players buy into whole adventure
The British & Irish Lions 2017 tour to New Zealand squad photo. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Every British & Irish Lions tour has to start somewhere and these days it is beneath a teetering mountain of free kit in west London.
The 41 chosen players heading to New Zealand have been issued with everything from multiple hats – peaked and woolly – to laptop covers and, crucially, have also now posed for their squad photo. Even if injury intervenes before the end of the month they will have something to show the grandchildren.
They call it ‘Messy Monday’ with good reason but, for the management, every second together is precious. Given all the various end-of-season finals and play-offs still outstanding, the full party will not be united again until the day before the squad fly out on May 29th.
Warren Gatland, the head coach, expects to see less than a third of his squad at next week’s pre-tour fitness camp in Wales. By the time everyone reaches Auckland, still strangers in a few cases, the first game will be three days away.
What Gatland can do in advance, however, is establish the right tone and hope his key messages percolate down to his own players and New Zealanders prior to arrival.
Squad members have even been given some Kiwi musical staples to listen to – Split Enz, Crowded House, Six60 – and Gatland is equally keen to emphasise the formidable on-field welcome that awaits them. Arriving with a healthy respect for New Zealand culture and rugby is near the top of his list of ingredients for an enjoyable, winning tour.
That means, for now, talking up the challenge rather than swaggering into town and being perceived as arrogant big shots.
Gatland, as a proud Kiwi himself, is all too aware what sort of visitors his compatriots love to hate. “The expectation for us is to do well, without talking ourselves up or being too confident,” he said. “The last thing we need is to get into an us-against-them situation.”
Given a Lions series in New Zealand is among the most intense sporting battles fought outside a heavyweight boxing ring, this might seem slightly strange.
What he really means is that defeating the All Blacks is as much a mental as a physical exercise; go in half-hearted and the contest is already half-lost. “You have to understand there are a lot of people (in our squad) who haven’t been to New Zealand.
“It is a different experience for a player. It wasn’t until I left that I realised how tough a country it is to go to on tour and players can find that experience daunting.”
He did not specifically add that the Lions got it wrong in 2005 but that misconceived tour has proved a watershed. Since then there has been a collective realisation that Lions tours are probably doomed to failure unless the players genuinely relish the experience and buy into the whole adventure, warts and all.
Single bedrooms, specially commissioned team songs and former No10 political advisers count for less than a glint in the eye just prior to taking the field. “We’ve got to talk about being positive and having self-belief,” said Gatland, who also addressed his squad on the subject of New Zealand’s geographical isolation and the cultural pros and cons that produces.
“I think this is the strongest squad the Lions has put together for a number of tours in terms of the strength in depth and the quality of players. I’m really excited about the squad … and we haven’t played yet. We know how tough the challenge is but that’s part of the history of the Lions. I feel we’ve got a squad that are capable of going and doing really well out there.”
In almost the same breath, even so, he was equally swift to acknowledge the fine form of New Zealand’s Super Rugby sides: “People talk about potentially some of the All Blacks being injured but there is a conveyor belt of players to step into the breach.” The message, once more, was clear: even the midweek games will be tough, never mind the Tests, unless the Lions are in the right frame of mind.
“We know what is coming at us and we know the intensity the ABs will bring,” said Gatland. “We have to be able to match that.”
The good news for the Lions is that the aforementioned team photo is not short of flinty-eyed competitors, including the rookies. Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw has already sat down with the former captain Brian O’Driscoll to receive advice and is not fazed by the notion of a highly physical series:
“It’s all part of it. To have that bit of niggle in rugby is needed; it gets both teams going. Personally I like a bit of niggle in the game. It makes it more exciting to be involved in. The higher the physicality, the better for me.”
Henshaw has also been receiving tips from his Kiwi-born team-mate Jared Payne about surviving a New Zealand winter: “I was asking Jared and a few of the guys what the weather is like and they said tell your parents to bring warm clothes because it can be wet and cold.”
Greig Laidlaw, meanwhile, was still getting his head round being invited to fill the vacancy left by Ben Youngs’s weekend withdrawal for family reasons. Among the first players to embrace him were Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg, less than broken-hearted to have a third Scot on board. As Laidlaw dryly observed: “I think they were pretty happy to see me.”