New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has upped the mind games by suggesting the British and Irish Lions could be crushed by the weight of expectation.
Warren Gatland’s side face a three-Test series against the world champions across June and July, with the Lions’ last trip having ended in a whitewash in 2005.
The All Blacks are favourites to prevail again, but Hansen believes there are high hopes for the touring party and they might struggle to cope.
“The Lions would be foolish to think that there’s not an expectation there for them to do well,” Hansen told the Telegraph.
“There will be a massive expectation on them. If you’re a Lions fan, you’d look at it and say, ‘We’ve got four countries going into one against the opposition, we should be able to beat these blokes’. That is an expectation to be dealt with.
“We have our own expectations. People expect us to win, too. We don’t get to avoid it. But it’s something that we live with all the time. And have had to learn to deal with. And the Lions will have to learn to deal with it. And I’m not sure [how and if they can deal with it].
“Each team has its own unique way of dealing with it. My point is that 20,000 will be coming out with a massive expectation. Yes, they want to see some good rugby, but they also want to see the Lions win.”
— British&Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) May 15, 2017
Wales coach Gatland named a 41-man squad, but Hansen expressed surprise at England captain Dylan Hartley’s omission, suggesting the Lions boss may have favoured players he more is familiar with.
“It is the strongest Lions squad I have seen in a long time with a lot of depth, especially in important positions like at number 10,” added Hansen, who was assistant to then All Blacks coach Graham Henry 12 years ago..
“There is quality there. But who will start, Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell? I was surprised that Hartley missed out. He would be suited to playing in his homeland [he was born in Rotorua]. He plays on the edge, but that is okay because that is who he is and what he is.
“There are not a lot of Scotsmen in there, yet Scotland were good enough to beat Ireland and Wales.
“Is that because there is a bit of bias towards Wales [from Gatland] or is it a sign of how much quality there is in the squad?
“They will all be wanting to start, but only one [in each position] can. That in itself will create pressure, two types of pressure, one where it will help push each other. But the other is where we will see if they can stay united because of that. Team spirit is intangible but important.
“I’ve never coached the Lions or had too much to do with them apart from 2005, when we played against them, but I would imagine that is one of the hardest things you have to do, is to unite four different countries that have a fierce rivalry and then to bring them together and to have personalities that all want to start, to play, to be part of it, it is difficult to manage.”