Gatland's Lions face ultimate challenge
NEW ZEALAND TOUR PREVIEW: The British and Irish Lions arrive in New Zealand next week armed with Kiwi movies and Irish inspiration.
And they have a belief they can win a series against the All Blacks for only the second time in 129 years.
A Lions tour only once every 12 years is one of the most anticipated sporting events in New Zealand, where rugby is regarded as a national religion and the three Lions Tests were sold out long ago.
Even before the first whistle, the Lions are braced for a high rate of attrition with a tour itinerary branded "suicidal" against New Zealand sides who love physical confrontation and whose fanatical supporters demand victory.
But their New Zealand-born coach Warren Gatland, who earned 17 All Blacks caps from 1988 to 1991, believes his composite side will take down the reigning world champions.
It is a feat managed only once so far - by the John Dawes-led 1971 Lions, who won their Test series 2-1.
Gatland looks to Ireland's win over the All Blacks last year, and how the Canterbury Crusaders shut down All Blacks playmaker Beauden Barrett in their Super Rugby clash with the Wellington Hurricanes, to identify weak points in the All Blacks armoury.
"To see some of these world-class [All Blacks] players be human, make some mistakes, show some frailties... gives you self-belief and confidence," Gatland said.
Ireland lock Iain Henderson said the men in green "got under the All Blacks' skin" in their shock 40-29 win, which ended a world-record run of 18 Test wins.
"It will be what we're looking to do out there (in New Zealand)," Henderson added. "Not beat them at their game but at our game."
However, there is no denying the Lions face a schedule designed to probe any possible weakness they may have before the Tests.
They play four of the five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, a provincial Barbarians side and the New Zealand Maori before the first Test on June 24, and the Wellington Hurricanes before the second Test.
Graham Henry, the only man to have coached both the All Blacks and the Lions, described the itinerary as "suicidal".
The lead-in games were crucial to building partnerships and confidence and "you just wonder how they are going to go into the Test series with that itinerary. It is very demanding", he said.
The Lions have chosen a heavyweight pack and while they have talked of playing an expansive game, the intention is clearly to win the battle up front first.
It is an area where the All Blacks have been particularly strong in recent years, laying the platform for a titanic clash of two intimidating packs.
The All Blacks, however, have captain Kieran Read and flanker Jerome Kaino battling to overcome injuries before the Tests, while hooker Dane Coles is troubled by concussion symptoms.
The Lions have lost number eight Billy Vunipola to a shoulder injury but otherwise almost their entire squad has been declared fit, including captain Sam Warburton who has not played since injuring a knee nearly two months ago.
"Given the history of the Lions, we've planned to lose anywhere between six and 10 players. That's just the attrition of past tours," Gatland said.
Gatland has also been instructing his charges on Kiwi culture, perhaps taking the advice of "know your enemy" from Sun Tzu's "The Art of War".
In addition to training they have been immersed in Kiwi films and music to gain "a bit of understanding culturally", Gatland said.
"If you understand your opposition it must help."
Vunipola's replacement, James Haskell, who has spent time in New Zealand playing Super Rugby for the Otago Highlanders, is looking forward to returning to a land obsessed with the game.
"They live and breathe their rugby. That's what I found living over there. I loved it. It's a place where rugby is the number one priority."
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