AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The British & Irish Lions have been warned. Steve Hansen says the All Blacks squad he unveiled on Thursday was the hardest he has ever had to pick.
After watching the Lions fall in their first match against Super Rugby opposition on Wednesday evening at Eden Park, Hansen dismissed Warren Gatland’s suggestion there was little between a team like the Blues and the full-blooded All Blacks.
“I don’t think there’s any comparison between Super Rugby and Test rugby. I don’t know what his thinking is,” Hansen said to Gatland’s take on the standard of domestic rugby compared to international.
Hansen also confirmed Lima Sopoaga, Waiseke Naholo and Liam Squire will be free to play for the Highlanders on Tuesday against a Lions side he maintains are the best to journey to New Zealand. Despite being one from two, he says they are still in the “infancy” of this tour, warning that they will “only get better” and will be a “good side when the Tests come round”.
The All Blacks are expecting “the kitchen sink” to be thrown at them in the first Test on June 24, but they will boast one of most competitive squads ever assembled judging on the headache it gave the selectors.
“This was the hardest squad we have ever had to pick, there were some really tough decisions because there are some guys who are in great form who have missed out,” Hansen said. “We see the next four matches as a way to measure of where we’re going with our game.
“We’re always seeking to improve and take our game to the next level. We have a mindset that we’re never standing still and we’re going to face a high-paced, intensity game against the Lions. That’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.”
New Zealand will get their first taste of Test action against Samoa on June 16 at Eden Park before the opening game against the Lions eight days later. Hooker Dane Coles will miss that with concussion and is unlikely to feature in their first two Tests against the Lions.
They are continuing to monitor Kieran Read and Squire’s broken thumbs but are hopeful Jerome Kaino will be ready to face Samoa with both included in the 33-man squad named on Thursday.
It features two uncapped players with Hurricanes fullback Jordie Barrett and centre Ngani Laumape given the nod.
“His performances for the Hurricanes have been outstanding and when you’re ready, you’re ready,” Hansen said of Jordie Barrett. “It’s your ability to cope with the pressure and show your skills at this level that gets you selected and he’s done that very easily. We found out a lot about his brother Scottie Barrett under pressure and Jordie coming away with us to tour with us last year gave him a taste of what it’s like without any of the pressure. Now he’s ready to step in and make an impact.”
Laumape’s inclusion means the likes of Malakai Fekitoa and George Moala miss out with Sonny Bill Williams named as another option at inside centre.
“We felt that if we were to lose a midfield player, we’d be short of an out and out centre,” Hansen said of the midfield selection. “It was a tough call to leave him out. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of him. He’s a resilient young man, he’ll go away and work hard and he’ll be back.”
Hansen would not be drawn on what the scrum-half pecking order is, with TJ Perenara and Aaron Smith both vying for the starting No.9 jersey.
“You’ll have to wait and see,” Hansen said. “When we name the team it’ll be pretty clear who we see as first choice between TJ and Aaron, but there’s no point me telling Samoa or the Lions our plan or who we’re picking.”