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North: Preparation Key For Lions Against All Blacks

02/05/2017 15:32
David Rogers via Getty Images

Realistically, can the British and Irish Lions triumph in New Zealand this summer against the mighty All Blacks, the reigning back-to-back world champions and rugby union's perennial number-one-ranked team - and on their own patch, to boot?

The odds are stacked against the hastily assembled tourists, who have won only one series in New Zealand in their 129-year history (and that was back in 1971, two decades before the advent of the professional era which rendered shock results - over three Tests, at least - less likely).

And given that head coach Warren Gatland will have just three weeks between the Lions' opening tour fixture, on June 3 against the Provincial Union Team in Whangarei, and the first Test, on June 24 in Auckland, to finalise his starting XV, only the most passionate or foolhardy fan would lump money on them succeeding.

Preparation - especially with the limited time the players from all four Home Nations countries - will be key, unquestionably, and despite all the indicators predicting a New Zealand whitewash (or blackwash?), there are reasons for optimism for the visitors. Four years ago, in Australia, the Lions were victorious for the first time since the 1997 tour in South Africa.

Gatland, a New Zealander himself who has been in charge of Wales since 2007, masterminded the 2-1 triumph Down Under by selecting a number of Welsh players and employing a power-based strategy coined 'Warrenball'. On that occasion the Lions planned perfectly, and the 41-16 result in the deciding third Test, when the Wallabies had no answer, highlighted how vital preparation, to a granular level, is on these quadrennial tours.

To better Steve Hansen's New Zealand Gatland knows that the balance between brawn and brain will need dialling towards the latter, and that was reflected in his 41-man squad choices, announced on April 19; he opted for clever, canny, multi-skilled players. Through perfect preparation, attempting to match the All Blacks at their own dynamic and chillingly efficient game style, which capitalises on opponents' mistakes, as well as using the momentum and confidence generated from four years ago, with a fair wind the Lions a surprise.

George North was one of the star names of the 2013 tour versus the Wallabies, aged just 21. The Welsh winger crossed for the try of the series in the first Test and epitomised the Lions' determination by carrying Australia's full-back - a would-be tackler and the side's biggest attacking threat - Israel Folau like a backpack in the second Test. Now 25, the Northampton Saints player is quietly confident the Lions can trigger a shock against the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cup champions, if - and it's a big 'if' - they hit the ground running.

"It's obviously going to a huge task taking on the All Blacks at home," says North, likely one of the first names on Gatland's tour party list. "They have incredible players, and the quality and strength in depth is unbelievable. You have wingers and hookers who can drop and change direction, make 20- or 30-metre passes off both hands. Each player is as skilful as the next, and that's the level that we are up against.

"The way the New Zealand team plays rugby forces the best out of all of their players; the ethos and culture they have in camp is brilliant. Knowing that you can quickly lose your place in the side makes everyone work extra hard, all the time. We need to match that."

North continues: "It will be flat-out intensive once we land, and if we are to be successful the biggest thing is to communicate as well as possible. It might sound simple, but it's important to learn to talk and understand one another - what players like or do, on and on the pitch - despite where you come from, for the sake of the team.

"If we don't buy in to the game plan Warren 100 per cent then the All Blacks will punish us. That's why having the right mindset as we prepare is absolutely vital. Everyone has to be on the same page."

The last time the Lions toured New Zealand in 2005 it ended in humiliation, with the hosts trouncing Sir Clive Woodward's side 3-0 with an aggregate score of 107-40. North insists that what happened a dozen years ago will have no bearing on this campaign. "Rugby has changed so much since then," the Gillette ambassador adds. "We are not underestimating the challenge - we know full well what an amazing team they have - but if we focus on our preparation, and get it right, then I believe an upset is possible."

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