Before departing for New Zealand, Warren Gatland has given a broad hint that he will protect his starting XV ahead of the All Blacks Tests. If he does so, it may well be a gamble which pays off in the Test matches. But spare a thought (and maybe a prayer) for the second team as their Tour could become a nightmare.
In an interview with The Telegraph Gatland seemed to be engaging in some foreshadowing when he attempted to play down the importance of the five ‘warm-up’ games.
“It’s obvious that in the first five games you’re not going to show everything, you’re not going to show your hand,” he said.
“What I’ve learned on past tours is that the whole thing is about a Test series. The warm-up games and lead-up games are for the Test series.
“Yes you want to perform well, but if you drop a game because you’re trying something then it’s not the end of the world. The important thing is not to get hung-up about those things, not to worry too much about that.”
The trouble for the Lions second team is that the so-called ‘warm-up’ games, with the exception of the first game against the NZ Provincial Barbarians, will have the physical intensity of Test matches. Apparently, Gatland has prepared an injury replacement list of ten players, but the fact that the second team will have to play three fired up Super 18 teams and the Maori All Blacks in the space of ten days, seems to fit former All Black coach Graham Henry’s description as being ‘suicidal’.
With the current spike in concussion injuries in New Zealand rugby, New Zealand coaches have expressed concern about the physical toll the New Zealand derbies are having on players. Many of the Lions players are reaching the end of a long international and club season and there must be genuine fears for player safety as they will experience a new level of physical intensity on this tour.
Two of the Super 18 teams, which a potential Lions second team could end up playing in the space of three days, on June 10 and 13, have not been beaten in the last 22 games. The Lions will face the red-hot Crusaders side in Christchurch, who are currently unbeaten after 14 rounds in the Super 18. The Crusaders will likely be missing some of their All Blacks, but their absence will probably only be missed in the forwards, where the entire front row and captain Sam Whitelock are likely to be selected by Steve Hansen.
The young Crusaders backline will only miss two All Blacks, Israel Dagg and Ryan Crotty, who have had limited involvement in the unbeaten streak due to injury. The Crusaders currently have a points differential of +247 and have beaten all four of the other New Zealand Super 18 sides.
In the next game, just three days later, which promises to be a fast-paced affair at the indoor Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Lions will take on the Highlanders, who are on their own nine-match winning streak. Four days after this, the daunting prospect of the New Zealand Maori side awaits.
If the New Zealand Herald is right, Gatland will not unveil his first XV until the Chiefs game, which follows the NZ Maori game. This means that the second team will have to play five punishing games in just two weeks.
A few close losses may be easy for Gatland to play down, but if injuries and unfamiliar player combinations take their toll on the second team, any heavy defeats could affect the morale of the whole squad.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena