Belfast Telegraph

Wily Steve Hansen fuels fire as he piles the pressure on foe Gatland

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

By simply naming a squad of such formidable strength, Steve Hansen made a statement in itself. However, that wasn't enough for the canny All Black coach, who doubled down and heaped further pressure on beleaguered Lions boss Warren Gatland.

The Test series is two weeks away, but the brutally difficult task that awaits the tourists became clearer than ever when Hansen unveiled his hand.

The Lions got to know a couple when they got up close and personal with Sonny Bill Williams and co in the loss to the Blues on Wednesday, while the Crusaders will roll out another contingent in Christchurch tomorrow.

After his team suffered their first defeat on tour in Auckland, Gatland suggested that the difference between the Kiwi Super Rugby franchises and the All Blacks is minimal, but Hansen was quick to dispute that theory. As if for good measure, he suggested that his opposite number was feeling the pressure.

"I don't think there is any comparison to Super Rugby and Test rugby. He was just trying to make a light comment possibly. I don't know what his thinking is," he said.

"I think he's probably trying to take a bit of humour after struggling a wee bit with his press conference before that.

"What causes me to say it is experience of guys coming from there and into us and they'll tell you, this is different. Test rugby is a lot harder no matter what team you play for, up north or down south. It is a lot harder, faster, more physical."

Gatland bristled at the criticism of his game-plan during and after his press conference in Auckland on Monday, rejecting the 'Warrenball' tag that he feels has unfairly followed him.

Hansen didn't use the term, but he certainly isn't changing his view on the style he expects the Lions to play.

"We all have a style to coach to," he said. "I've got one, Gats has got one, Heyneke Meyer has one, Eddie Jones has one; all coaches do it. That doesn't mean it's right, wrong or indifferent. It's just the style.

"You tinker with it a little bit, but you don't make big changes. I can't see Warren making big changes, and nor should he if that's what he believes is right for him. He's had enough success to say it works.

"He loves big, physical forwards, he loves big, physical backs and he likes playing a style to allow those people to dominate, win the collisions and then go to the space.

"That's the simplest way of looking at it. Does he want to add to that? I'm sure they do.

"In the Wales series (last June) they started to counter a bit more than we've seen in the past. Is he playing around with his kicking game? I'm sure he is.

"He's got a different defensive coach than he does with Wales, so he'll probably defend a little different, so their game will be different, I've no doubt."

Hansen has had two chances to see the Lions, but says he isn't sure how they're trying to play. He's not even sure the Lions know either.

"I don't think they do. It's hard for us, we find it hard moulding the five different franchise players but they've got five countries and some of the countries don't like each other," the former Wales coach said. "That's a task in itself, that takes time and energy.

"It's difficult for them coming here on a Wednesday and playing on a Saturday. That's an impossible task, it doesn't matter who you are and I don't know why they decided to do that, but they have. The games they're playing will get them ready for a Test run.

"I think the schedule's fine, but maybe they could've got here a little bit earlier. I don't know whether that's because commercialism took over from high performance, you'd have to ask them.

"If it has then they should have argued more for high performance."

Although he has injury concerns of his own over a number of senior men, Hansen could still name a formidable squad for the warm-up game against Samoa on this day week and for the series itself.

What's more, he can also send a dangerous-looking squad into the Maori game that takes place in Rotorua tomorrow week - a game Gatland has targeted as the dress rehearsal for the Tests.

Although there are two new faces in the brilliant utility back Jordie Barrett - younger brother to Beauden and Scott - and centre Ngani Laumape, the hallmark of Hansen's squad is the experienced core of World Cup winners who are steering the ship in the absence of the leadership corps who retired after their success in England in 2015.

"Is it about the Lions? No, it's about us," Hansen said of the squad. "We select a team based on how we want to play. It's obvious we like a physical, high-intensity, high-skill game. Do we have athletes who can do that? Yep, so we pick them.

"What that does is force the other athletes who miss out to think, 'If I want to be in there, I have to develop these other skills'."

All the while he'll sit back and watch the Lions as they are put to the pin of their collar on a weekly basis by the cream of Super Rugby.

They may not be at the All Blacks' level, but they are cohesive, skilful and powerful teams capable of causing problems for the tourists and showing the world champions just where the weaknesses will be when the Tests get under way.

Not that Hansen is giving them an out against the 14-from-14 Crusaders this weekend.

"I think it's going to be a good contest, but you would expect an international team to beat a franchise team," he said, pointedly. "Particularly one that is made up of the four home nations, with their pick of the best players. But the Crusaders are full of confidence and they are full of All Blacks, particularly up front."

All Blacks squad for Lions series - Forwards: Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Jermome Kaino, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Liam Squie; Backs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow, TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden, Lima Sopoaga, Ryan Crotty, Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordi Barrett, Israel Dagg, Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Julian Savea, Ben Smith.

Maori squad to face the Lions - Forwards: Chris Eves, Kane Hames, Mike Kainga, Ben May, Marcel Renata, Ash Dixon (capt), Hika Elliot, Tom Franklin, Leighton Price, Jow Wheeler, Elliot Dixon, Akira Ioane, Liam Messam, Reed Prinsep, Kara Pryor; Backs: Bryn Hall, Te Toiroa Tahurlorangi, Otere Black, Ihaia West, Tim Bateman, Charlie Ngatain, Matt Proctor, Rob Thompson, James Lowe, Damian McKenzie, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Declan O'Donnell.

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