Auckland - The All Blacks and British and Irish Lions meet
Saturday in Auckland in the first match of a three-Test series which will
present a glaring clash of styles, and may allow the victor to influence the
way rugby is played for years to come.
Lions' Test series in New Zealand are rare and treasured.
There have been only 12 since 1904 - making them loom large in the history of
the sport - and this is the first in 12 years which adds to the anticipation of
Outside of World Cups, few events in rugby take on larger
importance than tests between the Lions and All Blacks.
Players who excel in these series find their names loom
large in rugby history: Carwyn James and Barry John in 1971 or Graham Henry and
Dan Carter, who engineered New Zealand's 3-0 series win in 2005.
Errors and defeat can equally taint careers and the current
coaches - Steve Hansen for the All Blacks and New Zealand-born Warren Gatland
for the Lions - may face a new reckoning of their career achievements when the
series is over.
Under Hansen, the All Blacks have been proponents of the
running game - playing a style based on pace, skill and athleticism among both
backs and forwards which no team in the world has matched.
The Lions squad Gatland has assembled is more a team of
journeymen, highly adept at their own roles, lacking any real wattage of star
power but adept at their chosen style.
Gatland has tailored a game plan focused on fundamentals
which stresses the need for a strong set piece, physicality at breakdowns,
accurate kicking and the need to defend against the best attacking team in
Pieces have fallen into place for the Lions throughout their
tour. They began looking jet-lagged and under-prepared but have grown into
Gatland's style, winning lead-up matches over the last two weekends against the
Crusaders and New Zealand Maori.
There are even intimations in the selection of speedsters
Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson on the wings that the Lions will attempt a more
They are likely at first to rely on the heavy brigade of Ben
Te'o and Jonathan Davies to pound the ball up in midfield but they are
determined to be more than one-dimensional.
"It's about bringing other parts of our game together,
which is about playing with some flair and taking some risk and being
courageous and bold," Gatland said. "That's the way to beat the All
Blacks. A lot of people have speculated about the contrasting style, but I
think we've played some lovely rugby."
If the Lions cannot be expected to forego the running game,
the All Blacks also cannot be under-estimated at set pieces.
have had the best scrum and line-out in world rugby in recent years,
overshadowed by their attacking game.
The All Blacks may feel the Lions have been treated
generously on tour by referees who will also control the Tests.
frequently appear to be offside in their rush defence and in their kick chase,
seem to pull back on engagement at scrums, particularly on the loosehead side,
and use a second tackler to slow the ball at breakdowns.
The Lions claim the All Blacks block kick chasers and have
had success in arguing that case to referees. Gatland also argues that Hansen
is worried by what he has seen of them on tour.
"You guys that know me know that I'll tell you all the
time that worrying is a wasted emotion," Hansen said. "It's a wasted
emotion because if the thing you're worrying about has happened you need to fix
it, so there's no point in worrying about it."