The British and Irish Lions can win in New Zealand – but do they believe it?

Jack Colwill Roar Rookie

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    “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

    This famous (albeit misquoted) sentiment, attributed to Plutarch speaking about Alexander the Great, is one that will strike a chord with any modern rugby fan as they contemplate the possibility of their country going to New Zealand.

    Whenever any nation ventures down to the home of the All Blacks, they go with an air of doom about them, an understanding that they are on a kamikaze mission of sorts, to do what the barest few in world rugby have ever done and take down the undisputed kings of the game in their own backyard.

    They boast the highly enviable record of not having lost a Test match at home in almost eight years, when they were downed by three points by South Africa.

    Even when we go back to 2003, when they went down 15-13 in Wellington, it took an England side at the absolute height of its powers who would go on to claim a maiden World Cup a few months later to scrape past them in New Zealand.

    It took one of the best sides the world has seen to place a mark in the almost unfairly consistent record that is Test match rugby in New Zealand.

    It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour – into the proverbial lion’s den, if you will – has been treated with extreme caution and restrictions on optimism.

    After all, the last tour down that way ended with Brian O’Driscoll hospitalised after a minute of the First Test, a Second Test remembered for Dan Carter delivering arguably the greatest individual performance of all time, and a series overall that may as well have delivered the Lions back to Blighty in body bags.

    However, there are differences this time around. Even then, the Lions squad that travelled in 2005 was considered under-par.

    They had an admittedly successful coach who had been pulled back into the game fairly drastically after moving on from rugby, and the whole tour was marred by the furore over the presence of former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell as a media consultant.

    This time, however, there has been nothing about optimism about the quality of the squad making the journey. When players like Joe Launchbury, arguably the player of the Six Nations, a Finn Russell in arguably the form of his life and Lions stalwart Jamie Heaslip are left behind, you know you are taking some serious power with you.

    Gatland bucked the trends with his squad. Yes, he took some players out of loyalty, but they were players that had proven that they stepped up for the Lions jersey in 2013.

    Yes, he named Sam Warburton as captain again, but he went to great lengths to state that the on-field captaincy is up for grabs and let’s be honest, is there a better man in that squad to act as an off-field captain and media-facer than Sam? I don’t think so.

    AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE

    But Gatland picked not just the best players, as other coaches have done before. Picking guys like Ben Te’o, Ross Moriarty, Jared Payne and Kyle Sinckler, who are not even established international starters yet, Gatland has clearly picked to a game plan and given himself options.

    He has picked a squad based on what he has seen from each player and pieced together the elements of their games that will fit best into the side he wants to create, rather than hoping that rubbing enough good players together will create a good team.

    So the obvious question arises – is this a squad capable of not just winning a single Test match in New Zealand, but a series to boot?

    Yes.

    This squad is bursting with brilliant individual players, but also players who understand Southern Hemisphere rugby that bit better and players who can rattle the All Blacks. It is not to say necessarily that they are man-for-man better across the board than the world champions, but collectively it all holds up very well for the Lions on paper.

    However, as we know with New Zealand, on paper and on-field are two very different things.

    There is one simple thing that needs to change for the Lions to win in New Zealand. It is not tactically, in terms of personnel, or anything like that.

    It is a simple question of the underlying mentality of the squad. Between now and the First Test, Gatland and his squad will talk constantly about how they believe they can beat the All Blacks. However, the question of to how far those individual players actually do believe it is going to define this tour.

    Players will be putting forward the optimistic facade as soon as they touch down in New Zealand, but there will be players who still, at the back of their mind, remain aware of the uncharted territory they are attempting to breach.

    No player in that squad has won in New Zealand before, and quite a few have never even played there. That will have an impact.

    Gatland’s biggest task in assembling another series win is to convince every player in that squad, 100 per cent, that they can win. He needs to rid every mind of the doubts about the atmosphere, the quality of the opposition, and the nature of Lions squads being a little fractured to begin with.

    Wales' head coach Warren Gatland

    (Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

    He needs to keep his squad focused on themselves, the qualities they possess and the rugby they want to play. If the eyes and mind of the players wander to the All Blacks, doubts begin to emerge and the game is up – New Zealand have got you in that well-worn web.

    This may well be the best Lions squad ever assembled – at least in modern tour history. It is a squad that would be roundly backed for a series win were they going to South Africa or Australia. But, maybe it is fitting – to play the best, the Lions are taking the best they have had.

    This is the biggest opportunity to win in New Zealand that any team has ever had, and whether or not they can take will come down to how much they believe they can do it.

    No-one can coach that. Gatland can do as much as he can to convince them, but it will come down to the players and their inner belief.

    Over to you, Lions.