No stone unturned as Lions coach Warren Gatland vows to win back respect of NZ
These British and Irish Lions are going to be prepared. That much seems certain after their Kiwi coach, Warren Gatland, confirmed Hunt for the Wilderpeople is set to be compulsory viewing for his 41-strong troupe heading to New Zealand in June.
Gatland is a firm believer in the understanding-your-enemy principle, and has revealed he wants his Lions players and management to watch Taika Waiti's iconic and hugely successful Kiwi movie, amongst others, as part of their preparations for the upcoming 10-match, three-test tour of New Zealand.
The former Waikato and All Blacks hooker, and now veteran international coach, has announced his squad to come to NZ and at the end of a busy day of pomp, ceremony and media commitments in London, he lifted the lid on the extent to which he'll be preparing his men for the toughest tour in the business.
As well as dishing up a few laughs, he hopes immersing themselves in the Wilderpeople's unique Kiwi spin on a rebellious kid and his cantankerous foster-carer going bush to discover themselves will offer some valuable insight into both the New Zealand psyche and sense of humour.
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It's all part of Gatland's leave-no-stone-unturned approach to a tour in which he vows his Lions will erase the bad taste left by Clive Woodward's 2005 visitors and do their level best to "win over" the New Zealand public, while also securing just their second test series victory against the All Blacks.
"I'm going to make it available to them," Gatland told a conference call with Kiwi media.
"I said to the staff you've got to understand New Zealand and the New Zealand humour, and part of that is understanding what makes people tick.
"We [New Zealanders] are a little bit different, and people going there haven't always cottoned on to that. If you understand your opposition it must help. So we'll have a look at Hunt For the Wilderpeople, and maybe Whale Rider and Boy, though I'm not sure Once Were Warriors is the best example of New Zealand to have a look at.
"It gives you a bit of understanding culturally, and quite good insight. That's important. It's been my experiences of the past some teams haven't been properly prepared for New Zealand which is the hardest country to tour.
"In 2013 we arrived in Melbourne and people wanted to know who all these people in red were, and what were they here for. Wherever we go in New Zealand people are going to know about the Lions, who we are and be excited about it."
Gatland admitted there were "bridges to build", not to mention lessons to be learned, from the debacle of 2005 where Woodward and his Lions did not exactly endear themselves to their hosts during a series that saw them thumped in all three tests by the All Blacks.
"We want to play some really attractive rugby, and we want to do what Lions have traditionally done with the community stuff. Early on we'll get round the schools and hospitals, and we've got to make sure we do all that stuff properly," said Gatland, explaining his detail would go down as deep as the correct responses at the official Waitaingi powhiri.
"A lot of teams that have gone to New Zealand in the past haven't gone culturally prepared and they haven't understood what they're facing. Hopefully we can get some respect from the New Zealand public in the way we play, and if we get things right off the field they can see we're going to be good tourists.
"Hopefully rugby is going to be the big issue, and people are excited about that. That was my experience with Wales there in 2011. If you can win over the public and then let your rugby do the talking, that's going to be a key."
In terms of his squad, Gatland brushed off the notable omission of New Zealand-born England captain Dylan Hartley, and his preference for his England hooker understudy Jamie George. He said Hartley's checkered disciplinary record was not a factor.
"It was a tough call and Dylan is very unlucky. But we felt Jamie, who is an outstanding young player, is only going to get better, particularly at that higher level. He's established himself as No 1 at Saracens and he's extremely highly rated, both by the Saracens coaching staff and England coaching team."
Gatland also highlighted the readiness of Kiwi-born "bolters" Ben Te'o (England) and Jared Payne (Ireland) for whatever he needs from them.
"We see Ben as a 12, though England have used him at 13. He's been really effective coming off the bench as an impact player, and is someone who can be direct but has much more skill than that in terms of his ability to offload. As coaches you've got to match the All Blacks' impact off the bench.
"And I'm absolutely delighted for Jared. He was in the squad at Waikato when I was there and we didn't re-sign him. He went up to Northland, established himself there, got selected for the Blues, and ended up in Ulster and playing for Ireland.
"He's pretty experienced now, and has played in some big matches where Ireland have been successful, particularly against southern hemisphere teams. His win record for Ireland and success he's had has been pretty impressive. He can play at 13, which is where we've picked him, but also at fullback and at a pinch on the wing as well."
Gatland said it was the strongest squad he could have named, put together on skill and character, and not nationality. Their biggest challenge would be coming together in the short preparation time before their first match in Whangarei on June 3.
"My biggest challenge is trying to get these guys to understand what's going to be thrown at them. I don't think our Lions players would have experienced the amount of emotion and desire the New Zealand players are going to bring to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play the Lions and create history."
Their education, you could say, starts now, via Sam Neill, Julian Dennison and their celluloid adventures.
The 2017 British and Irish Lions team to tour New Zealand:
Backs: Dan Biggar, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Lee Halfpenny, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Hogg, Jonathan Joseph, Conor Murray, George North, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Jonathan Sexton, Tommy Seymour, Ben Te'o, Anthony Watson, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams, Ben Youngs
Forwards: Rory Best, Dan Cole, Taulupe Faletau, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George, Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler, Jack McGrath, Ross Moriarty, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Sam Warburton (captain).