All Black great Sean Fitzpatrick sees major challenge coming from dangerous Lions

Former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick says Warren Gatland has 'thought about a game-plan to beat the All Blacks and ...
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Former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick says Warren Gatland has 'thought about a game-plan to beat the All Blacks and found the players to do that'.

Five per cent. That's the margin of error All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick gives Steve Hansen's men against a well-balanced and smartly selected British and Irish Lions squad.

And it's a view that the UK-based Fitzpatrick says has changed dramatically in the Lions' favour over the last 12 months during which he believes the northern hemisphere game has made seismic improvements under some astute Australasian guidance.

"If you had asked me 12 months ago have the Lions got any chance, I would have said not a show in hell," Fitzpatrick said from London.

Fitzpatrick says Kiwis will warm to Sam Warburton and many of Warren Gatland's men.
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Fitzpatrick says Kiwis will warm to Sam Warburton and many of Warren Gatland's men.

"But 12 months on the influence of Vern Cotter, Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt, in particular, has changed my thinking.

"Traditionally the Six Nations is a game of attrition and not very expansive, but this was probably the best Six Nations I've seen in terms of the quality of rugby and the creation of space, and defensively it was also outstanding."

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Fitzpatrick, who played 62 of his 92 tests for the All Blacks as captain, felt Gatland had got the formula right with his 41-strong squad for the 10-match, three-test tour of New Zealand in June-July.   

"It's an excellent squad. He's obviously thought about it pretty long and hard, he's thought about a game-plan that can beat the All Blacks and then he's gone away and found the players who can do that.

"The quality of the players who have missed out is a good reflection of how good this team is. To have a player like Joe Launchbury, who I thought was the best second-rower in the Six Nations, miss out says a lot."

British and Irish Lions tour dates in New Zealand - June/July 2017

3 June:   NZ Barbarians v Lions - Toll Stadium, Whangarei 
7 June:   Blues v Lions -  Eden Park, Auckland 
10 June: Crusaders v Lions - AMI Stadium, Christchurch
13 June: Highlanders v Lions - Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
17 June: Māori All Blacks v Lions - Rotorua International Stadium, Rotorua
20 June: Chiefs v Lions - Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
24 June: All Blacks v Lions -  Eden Park, Auckland 
27 June: Hurricanes v Lions - Westpac Stadium, Wellington
1 July:    All Blacks v Lions - Westpac Stadium, Wellington
8 July:    All Blacks v Lions - Eden Park, Auckland

Fitzpatrick believe his old All Black understudy Gatland has been "quite clever" with the makeup of his squad which will be led by an inspirational player (Sam Warburton) whom New Zealanders will warm to.

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"He's picked a team that's going to be hugely competitive on the field, but more importantly for touring New Zealand they're going to do well off the field.

"He's picked some characters who will earn the respect of New Zealanders, the Peter O'Mahonys of the world, the Jared Paynes.

"Those are the sort of players, with no disrespect, who might struggle to make the first test team but they will be giving everything they can on and off the field.

"Gats is very smart. He knows what it takes to win in New Zealand.

"He's looked at what happened in '05, when they (the Lions) misread the atmosphere and got it totally wrong. They struggled on the field but more importantly they really struggled off it.

"And if you've got a nation of rugby-mad people against you, it makes it so much harder."

Fitzpatrick rattles off some names. Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Courtney Lawes, Jack McGrath, the Vunipola brothers, Elliot Daly, Stuart Hogg, Robbie Henshaw.

He wonders whether New Zealanders have even heard of them. He certainly has.

"Steve Hansen knows these players and he'll know there's a massive challenge.

"That's what makes it so exciting. Can they beat the All Blacks? If the All Blacks play to their best the Lions are not going to win.

"But if the All Blacks are five percent off, they've got an opportunity."

The World Cup-winning All Black also believes Gatland has been given the blueprint for success.

"If you're going to beat the All Blacks you've got to take them on physically, and then back it up with field position, maintain possession, and defensively be very good.

"If you look back at what happened in Chicago, that's the game-plan Joe Schmidt developed."

The All Blacks have been warned. By one of their own too.

 - Stuff

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