The British & Irish Lions are set to pose the All Blacks a serious challenge in the forthcoming Test series according to the latest side to lose to the touring squad. The Chiefs’ head coach, Dave Rennie, whose team were beaten 34-6 on Tuesday, believes the Lions are growing stronger by the day in the run-up to this weekend’s first Test in Auckland.
Rennie, who will shortly be relocating to the UK to become Glasgow’s head coach, was impressed by the midweek Lions and thinks New Zealand will have their work cut out: “I think it’s going to be the series everyone thought it would be a month ago. Maybe there’s been a little bit of doubt recently but they’re getting better and better. When they get settled on combinations I think it will be a pretty exciting series. You’ve got to hand it to them, we battled to get our set-piece going and they strangled us.”
The Lions have not won a Test series in New Zealand since 1971 and no international side has conquered Eden Park since 1994 but, defensively, they have now conceded just one try in their past three matches combined. Rennie is also respectful of their set-piece game, although he stops short of predicting a Lions series triumph. “I’ve no doubt if you’re ill-disciplined the Lions are a side that can put you in a corner and hurt you. We were outmuscled. They did a good job of slowing our pill down and when we came around the corner there was still a bit of a wall there. As you saw, you can have all the plans from an attack point of view but if you don’t have your set-piece game nothing happens.”
The Chiefs captain Stephen Donald, the fly-half who helped New Zealand win the 2011 World Cup, also described it as “a bloody good Lions team” who had “suffocated” his normally free-scoring side. He suspects, though, the host nation will mount a significantly more powerful threat than the Lions have so far experienced. “The All Blacks have got some fairly handy individuals and they’ve been planning for this for a long time,” stressed Donald. “I’m pretty sure they’ve got some tricks up their sleeve too.”
Warren Gatland, back in his native city, is confident, meanwhile, his own side will continue to improve. “We have got better the longer we have been in New Zealand as combinations have come together. We said we would do that and we have done,” said Gatland. “We are pretty happy with where we are at at the moment. We spoke about the quality of the squad before we left and some players haven’t disappointed us.
“From a defensive point of view, we are getting stronger and stronger. We are playing against teams that have scored multiple tries week-in, week-out and we are strangling them. But on Saturday we are up against the best team in world in their own back yard where they haven’t lost since 1994. It’s going a big test for us.”
Gatland looks ready to keep faith with the majority of the starting XV involved in the Maori game but has hinted Elliot Daly might “possibly” come on to the bench for the first Test. He also feels the first midweek victory of the tour will do wonders for the Lions’s confidence. “We didn’t want this group not winning tonight,” acknowledged Gatland. “In the changing room afterwards, everyone realised just what it meant, not just for the players that took the field, but the rest of the squad. We had quite a big sing-song in the changing room. It was a good feeling.”
“We have always said how difficult this tour was, we’ve known how tough the schedule is. It’s not like previous tours; this is unlike anything that’s been taken on before.” Gatland, meanwhile, has denied whingeing about the amount of blocking in major games, stressing only that referees need to be vigilant: “I just said it was frustrating that there had been subtle blocking. Refs have picked up on it and hopefully it gets stamped out of the game.”