The British & Irish Lions are dealing with a potentially “suicidal” itinerary in New Zealand, according to Sir Graham Henry.
The Lions’ schedule sees them face all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises and also the Maori All Blacks, a game traditionally seen as an unofficial fourth Test.
And they will also face New Zealand twice at Eden Park, a ground where the All Blacks last lost in 1994, as they look to secure their first series win over the Kiwis since 1971.
Henry knows full well the pressures of coaching both the Lions and the All Blacks. Back in 2001 he led the Lions to Australia for what proved to be a 2-1 series defeat and 10 years on he coached the All Blacks to the World Cup.
He believes the Lions will bring a “strong” squad to New Zealand, but fears the itinerary may halt their progress as they look to build momentum through to the first Test on June 24.
“There is huge pressure on the Lions,” Henry told ESPN. “You just want the Lions to do well because it is such a marvellous brand in world rugby and they need to do pretty well to maintain the potency of the brand, because it’s huge for the southern hemisphere countries to have the Lions tour.
“I know from my own experiences how much the players respect getting selected for the Lions. It is the pinnacle of their career. It is massive but they need to do well and I just wonder if the itinerary is suicidal. That is my concern.
“They are playing New Zealand Maori, they are playing the five franchised teams — and those five franchised teams have nothing to lose, no pressure on them at all, so they will fire everything at the Lions and take them on.
“Hopefully they [the Lions] have the ability to overcome that. But really when you tour, you need to ensure some momentum is created by results and you just wonder how they are going to go into the Test series with that itinerary. It is very demanding.”
Henry points to Wales’ match against the Chiefs on their 2016 tour as an example of what the Lions can expect. Warren Gatland’s side faced the franchise in a midweek match on their tour of New Zealand and were humbled 40-7.
“The Chiefs had nothing to worry about, no pressure, they just went out and expressed themselves,” Henry said. “When those young kids do that in this country, against opposition that they respect, and they are obviously going to respect the Lions, it is going to be a massive challenge for the Lions.”
Henry is full of praise for the work Gatland has done in northern hemisphere rugby. “It is bloody incredible,” is his take and puts him alongside Steve Hansen in terms of being the two most experienced coaches in world rugby.
For Gatland, one of his main challenges with this taxing schedule is to ensure the Lions peak for the Test series. Their time in New Zealand will be judged on their record against the All Blacks, but winning their matches against the franchises will be key in building momentum.
“They are remembered by the Test match results but sides gain confidence and momentum through the games they play leading into those Test matches and if they don’t get success in those games, confidence is not going to be high and that is going to affect the way they play in the Test matches,” Henry said. “I don’t know if you can draw a line between the games you play prior to the Test and the Test.
“I think it is all part of what you’re doing there and part of the psyche of the team, the confidence of the team and how they play.
“Certainly they are going to be remembered for how they play in those three Tests, but the building of the confidence and the ability to play the game through those franchise games and the New Zealand Maori game will be pretty important.”