All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick says British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has picked an ‘excellent squad’ for the tour of New Zealand.
Fitzpatrick, who played 92 times for the All Blacks, 62 of those as captain, believes that if New Zealand are just a little bit off their game, they will be exposed by what he has labelled a ‘hugely competitive’ Lions side, according to Stuff.
He has paid tribute to the influence that coaches Vern Cotter, Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt have had on Scotland, England and Ireland respectively, while also saying that the previous Six Nations was played at the highest standard he has ever witnessed.
“If you had asked me 12 months ago have the Lions got any chance, I would have said not a show in hell,” Fitzpatrick told Fairfax Media from London.
“But 12 months on the influence of Vern Cotter, Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt, in particular, has changed my thinking.
“Traditionally the Six Nations is a game of attrition and not very expansive, but this was probably the best Six Nations I’ve seen in terms of the quality of rugby and the creation of space, and defensively it was also outstanding.
“It’s an excellent squad. He’s obviously thought about it pretty long and hard, he’s thought about a game-plan that can beat the All Blacks and then he’s gone away and found the players who can do that.
“The quality of the players who have missed out is a good reflection of how good this team is. To have a player like Joe Launchbury, who I thought was the best second-rower in the Six Nations, miss out says a lot.
The 53-year-old, who Gatland was once understudy to, believes his compatriot has picked players who will be able to handle the pressure thrown at them, players who won’t give up easily
“He’s picked a team that’s going to be hugely competitive on the field, but more importantly for touring New Zealand they’re going to do well off the field.
“He’s picked some characters who will earn the respect of New Zealanders, the Peter O’Mahonys of the world, the Jared Paynes. Those are the sort of players, with no disrespect, who might struggle to make the first test team but they will be giving everything they can on and off the field.
“Gats is very smart. He knows what it takes to win in New Zealand. He’s looked at what happened in ’05, when they (the Lions) misread the atmosphere and got it totally wrong. They struggled on the field but more importantly they really struggled off it. And if you’ve got a nation of rugby-mad people against you, it makes it so much harder.”
“Steve Hansen knows these players and he’ll know there’s a massive challenge. That’s what makes it so exciting. Can they beat the All Blacks? If the All Blacks play to their best the Lions are not going to win. But if the All Blacks are five percent off, they’ve got an opportunity.
“If you’re going to beat the All Blacks you’ve got to take them on physically, and then back it up with field position, maintain possession, and defensively be very good. If you look back at what happened in Chicago, that’s the game-plan Joe Schmidt developed.”
Fitzpatrick was referring to Ireland’s 40-29 victory over the All Blacks in Chicago in November last year.