How Lions will prepare for toughest tourSave
By Patrick McKendry
Warren Gatland's task as he prepares his British and Irish Lions squad for the enormity of touring New Zealand, a rugby trip which he says is the toughest around, is to give his players an insight into the mentality of not only the opposition but also the general public.
The mentality of New Zealanders is slightly different to that possessed by the inhabitants of the four home nations, reckoned the former All Blacks hooker, and certainly it is when it comes to rugby.
Part of that preparation will involve a crash course in New Zealand movies, including Taika Waititi's recent hit Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and a sense of humour will certainly help during a 10-match tour which former Lions and All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry has described as potentially "suicidal".
Gatland also admitted after naming his 41 players for the tour in June and July that there are bridges to be re-built after the team's last trip here 12 years ago when a siege mentality existed even before skipper Brian O'Driscoll was invalided out of it in the opening minutes of the first test.
There will be an official welcome at the Treaty grounds in Waitangi on the Sunday after the opening game of the tour against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei on June 3, and for that Gatland expects his men to practice their singing so they can respond to the powhiri in the correct way.
Respect, following protocol and elevating the Lions in the minds of Kiwis, as well as the team's many supporters, many of whom will be travelling, is very important to him.
There will be hospital and school visits and no doubt babies to kiss as he attempts to focus attention not necessarily on what his team are doing off the field, but on it.
He wants it to be about Lions rugby - hopefully for him attractive, winning rugby - in games that will be played against New Zealanders with a desire to create their own place in history.
It won't be easy and for that he is unapologetic. Before the first test at Eden Park on June 24, the Lions will have played the Provincial Barbarians, Blues, Crusaders, Highlanders, New Zealand Maori and Chiefs in the space of 18 days.
It's a schedule he approved years ago and one which he believes gives his team the best chance of a series victory.
"While we recognise that this is a hell of a tough tour, we think we're going to be in pretty good shape because of how tough those games will be heading into that first test," Gatland said.
"My biggest challenge for these players is that the ones who have toured New Zealand before, is trying to make them understand what's going to be thrown at them.
"I don't think our Lions players will have experienced the amount of emotion and desire that these New Zealand players are going to bring, it's a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to play the Lions, and create something special, and create history. That's a big job for me to communicate and prepare these players for the challenges that they will face against some real quality opposition."
In discussing his squad over the phone with New Zealand media after a long day of press commitments in west London, Gatland admitted winning the first test at the All Blacks' stronghold was imperative.
"If you're going to win the series in New Zealand I think you've got to win that first test. It's going to be pretty important."
And for him it's also important that his players understand Kiwis a little better - the reason why some video analysis will include some light relief in the form of movies.
"If you understand your opposition it must help," he said.
"So we'll have a look at Hunt For the Wilderpeople, and maybe Whale Rider and Boy, though I'm not sure Once Were Warriors is the best example of New Zealand to have a look at.
"It gives you a bit of understanding culturally, and quite good insight. That's important. It's been my experiences of the past some teams haven't been properly prepared for New Zealand which is the hardest country to tour."