Lions coach Warren Gatland believes tough tour schedule can work in their favour

Lions coach Warren Gatland says 'winning is incredibly important for morale, but it's not the most essential thing'.
STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES

Lions coach Warren Gatland says 'winning is incredibly important for morale, but it's not the most essential thing'.

This isn't Warren Gatland's first rodeo, and the British and Irish Lions coach is not about to twist himself in knots fretting about the perfect ride through his tour of New Zealand.

In fact Gatland sent a clear message in the wake of his announcement of an extended squad of 41 to tour New Zealand in June and July: he is fully prepared to sacrifice tour defeats for the greater cause of winning the test series against Steve Hansen's All Blacks.

Much has been made of the degree of difficulty presented by the so-called itinerary from hell in New Zealand, which will see the Lions weave their way through games against the five Super Rugby franchises and the test-level Maori, as well as the three internationals.

Only the tour opener, against a mid-strength Provincial Barbarians side in Whangarei on June 3, could be termed remotely soft. The rest is anything but.

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Former All Blacks and Lions coach Graham Henry has labelled the schedule "suicidal" and highlighted the difficulty Gatland will face building form, confidence and momentum through a gruelling itinerary.

"When you tour, you need to ensure momentum is created by results and you just wonder how they are going to go into the test series with that itinerary," Henry told ESPN.

"If they don't get success in those games, confidence is not going to be high and that is going to affect the way they play in the test matches."  

But Gatland, who will be on his third tour with the Lions after serving as an assistant to South Africa in 2009 and head coach when they pipped the Wallabies 2-1 in 2013, adopts a more glass-half-full view of the schedule.

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In fact, he believes it could be a decided advantage for the Lions by the time they reach the opening test at Eden Park on June 24.

"Winning is incredibly important for morale, but it's not the most essential thing," Gatland told Kiwi media from London after his squad announcement. "It's all about the test series. I learnt that in 2013 (in Australia). We could have put a stronger side out on the Tuesday against the Brumbies, but we protected as many of the test side as we could.

"We ended up losing that game 14-12, but if we had put out a slightly stronger team there was a good chance we might have lost the first test (they won 23-21) and it's all about winning a test series and preparing for that."

In fact, Gatland believes soft lead-in itineraries have worked against the Lions in recent tours.

"While we recognise how tough this is going to be in terms of the games and quality of opposition, the last two tours I've been on we played games we won by 60-70 points and that hasn't been good preparation for the test matches," he added.

"If you go back to 2009 in South Africa we came to the first test thinking we were in better shape than we were. We were underdone because we'd won the games too easily leading into the first test.

"In 2013 in Australia we had too many easy games as well. While we recognise it's a hell of a tough tour we think we'll be in pretty good shape because of how tough those games are going to be leading into the first test."

Gatland also indicated he probably wouldn't settle on his "shadow" test lineup until probably the clash against the New Zealand Maori in Rotorua on June 17. Until then the accent would be more on giving as many of his squad as possible a chance to press their claims.

"There is a balance between harmony in the squad and giving players an opportunity. Getting things right off the field is pretty paramount with the Lions because we've got such a short time together.

"One of the things that was successful for us in 2013 was we gave everyone a start in the first few games, so all those players feel like they're in the shop window, and there's an opportunity. We would like to replicate that in terms of players getting a start.

"We're going to have to mix and match a little bit and then perhaps look towards the Maori game looking not so much at a shadow [test] team, but putting out a pretty strong side."

Gatland also confirmed he had expanded his squad out to 41, four more than originally planned, at a reported cost of an extra £600,000 (nearly NZ$1.1 million), because of the anticipated injury toll through that gruelling itinerary.

"If you look at the midweek games we've got the Super Rugby champions (the Hurricanes), the Highlanders who won it the year before, the Chiefs and the Blues. It's going to be incredibly tough.

"Our original thoughts were to pick a squad of 37, but we looked at previous tours and you lose 6-10 players through injury.

"So we decided to pick a slightly extended squad to compensate for what we know is going to happen in terms of injuries, and as much as possible protect that 23 going into the first test. It's important to have the best possible preparation.

"It's not ideal playing a midweek game before the first test, because if you're going to win a series in New Zealand I think you've got to win that first test. It's going to be pretty important." 

 - Stuff

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