All Blacks coach Steve Hansen yesterday said that the British and Irish Lions had split into two squads and were about to call for reinforcements as the first Test looms.
Hansen also warned the tourists to take a good look at how his World Cup-holders play against Samoa today and said that New Zealand would only get better in next week’s opening Test.
The Lions have lost both of their midweek games so far on tour, against the Auckland Blues and Otago Highlanders, and won on the weekends against a Barbarians team and the Canterbury Crusaders.
Hansen said Lions coach Warren Gatland clearly had a midweek side and a stronger weekend team.
Gatland has said he wants to avoid dividing the squad, stressing the importance of harmony.
“There is a clear difference between the two teams, the Wednesday team and the Saturday team.” Hansen said, adding: “There is definitely a difference between the two squads in the way they’re performing.”
Hansen said he believed Gatland, with 40 players already on tour, was about to send for reinforcements to have two completely different squads.
“I think he is about to bring a few extra players out to give himself the ability to play two squads,” Hansen said. “He’s at the stage where he wants to do that.”
Hansen was speaking on the eve of the All Blacks’ Test against Samoa, part of a Pacific double-header in Auckland, with Tonga facing Wales.
With the exception of regular captain Kieran Read, who is a week away from returning from a broken thumb, Hansen said he was starting his strongest available line-up.
“We want to start the ball rolling and get away to a good start and whatever we do on Friday night we’ll be able to improve on the following week,” he said, adding that the focus first was to beat Samoa.
“Whilst the Lions is a dance that’s happening in the background, and we’re watching that with interest, there’s a responsibility to the jersey and those that have been before us, that we go out and take this Test match seriously and respect Samoan rugby,” he said.
Fullback Ben Smith is to lead the side in place of Read, while Aaron Smith, who went through a form lapse last year, has been restored as the first-choice scrumhalf. Jerome Kaino is to get his first start in eight weeks since undergoing knee surgery.
Hansen said the important thing for his team, in their first game together this year, was to shift from their clubs’ defensive and attack patterns and move fluently into the All Blacks’ style.
“If we can get through the game getting those connections going again, getting back into the All Blacks’ way, play with a bit of intensity and pace, with some accuracy, it will be good and obviously keeping an eye on the scoreboard,” he said.
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