British and Irish Lions assistant coach Rob Howley has stepped up the mind games by warning New Zealand not to read too much into their selection for Tuesday’s tour match against the Chiefs.
Sniping between the two camps has been a recurring theme in recent weeks and continued in the aftermath of the Lions’ 32-10 victory over the Maori All Blacks on Saturday.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland has suggested that New Zealand counterpart Steven Hansen’s consistent mocking is a cover for an increasingly worried figure prior to Saturday’s opening Test in Auckland.
At first glance, Gatland’s selection for Tuesday’s showdown in Hamilton might be a nod to him protecting the potential squad for Saturday, although Howley has poured scorn on that assumption.
“On Tuesday, it’s important that the guys who have been selected put their hand up as we want to keep momentum,” said Howley. “We’re at the halfway stage now, there are five games left.
“The key is to look back through all those learning experiences that you have as a player and a coach and in 2013 there were nine changes between the first and the third Test.
“These players might feel that they are playing on Tuesday and they’re not going to be involved on Saturday, but that is totally not the case.”
reland hooker Rory Best will captain the Lions against Super Rugby outfit the Chiefs, while Iain Henderson, Greig Laidlaw, Dan Biggar and Elliot Daly are all set to start having come of the bench against the Maori All Blacks.
Liam Williams and Jack Nowell join Daly in the back three, while Alun Wyn Jones, who will no doubt be eager to feature after Maro Itoje and George Kruis impressed at the weekend, has been named on the bench.
“We are five games into the tour and there is still a lot to play for,” said Gatland. “Those involved on Tuesday will be playing not only for themselves in terms of further selection but also for the whole squad.
“We are here to win a Test series and we have brought cover for the replacements bench so we can limit the number of players who need to double up, which is tough to do at this level of rugby.
“We know it is going to be another big challenge against the Chiefs, who have won the Super Rugby title twice in the last five years.”
A day after New Zealand fired a shot across the Lions’ bow with a 78-0 hammering of Samoa at Eden Park, the tourists responded in kind with a morale-boosting victory of their own on Saturday.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny kicked 20 points as Itoje crossed the line to ensure the Lions chalked up their third win from five tour matches and avoided a similar setback to 12 years ago when the Maori stunned their visitors 19-13.
In the aftermath of victory, Gatland said: “We’ve been written off but far from it splitting us as Steve Hansen has said, it has brought us close together as a group.
“There is no way we are divided and I’ve been surprised by Steve, who is normally pretty calm. Coming out with those comments about us is normally a sign of a man that is a little bit worried.”