Warren Gatland says his British & Irish Lions side has every intention of playing an attacking brand of rugby in Hong Kong and Australia this summer.
The Australian media have labelled the Lions ‘slabs of red meat’ in relation to the size and strength of so many of Gatland’s selections but the man charged with guiding Britain and Ireland’s elite to series success is quick to dismiss suggestions that the tourists will be one dimensional.
Instead, Gatland insists his squad will adopt an expansive philosophy, one that involves both forwards and backs and gives the travelling support plenty to get excited about.
“We’re going down there to play rugby,” said Gatland.
“Don’t think we’re going to be putting the ball up our jumper and playing nine or 10-man rugby.
“We’re going to Australia to move the ball and to score points and tries. I can guarantee there’s going to be some very positive play from the Lions while we’re there.”
With the likes of Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell at the helm, the Lions will unleash plenty of flair
Fresh from naming a 37-man party last week, Gatland’s thoughts have now turned to making the most of his minimal preparation time with the players ahead of the tour opener with the Barbarians on June 1.
Player availability will be limited in the lead up to the historic Hong Kong fixture with the globe’s other leading invitational XV and that will understandably mould Gatland’s thinking in terms of team selection first time out.
“Because we’ve got domestic semi-finals and finals and European finals coming up, some players will still be involved with their clubs when we meet up for a camp in Wales from the week beginning May 13 and then again in Ireland in the week beginning May 20. So we’ll probably only have about half the squad there.
“Those guys will probably make up most of the team for the game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong. The rest of the team then won’t come together until May 26 for a farewell dinner, and then we fly out on May 27.
“The difficulty of a Lions tour is that you’re bringing the players from four nations together with limited preparation and you’re playing away from home against one of the top three countries in the world.
“If you picked a team from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and brought them together for a few days and then went to the northern hemisphere, there’s no guarantee that they’d be better than the All Blacks, Springboks or Wallabies as individual teams.”
All roads lead to the start of the three-match Test series in Brisbane on June 22 as far as Gatland is concerned and it is the ultimate aim of defeating the Qantas Wallabies that will be driving his thinking for the opening few games of the 125th anniversary adventure.
While winning each of the 10 tour matches would be a remarkable achievement, he knows he needs to give game time to his entire squad and to ensure every single member of the party feels he has been given a fair crack of the whip early on.
Sam Warburton’s selection as skipper means he is a likely Test starter but Gatland insists he won’t be heading south with too many preconceived ideas on selection: everyone will be treated equally and everyone will be handed the opportunity to fight for a place in his first XV.
“I’m miles away from knowing the starting XV for the first Test. If you took a mental note you’d probably be able to say 'this is what I’d like at the moment', but there’s a huge amount of competition and depth in a number of positions.
“We’ll guarantee everyone a start in the first three games. That will give players the chance to put themselves in the shop window before the Test series. After that, we’re going to have to make some pretty tough decisions.
“We’ve got no time together so a lot of our game plan and structures and players getting to know calls is going to have to be done on tour. It’s going to take us two or three weeks to do that.
“So I’m not going to be too hung up on whether we drop a game or two on the way to the Test series – it’s all about making sure we arrive at the first Test thoroughly prepared, having trained hard and having made sure we’re ready to go in Brisbane.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about the provincial games or the Super Rugby games, it’s about winning the Test series. That’s the most important challenge for us.”
Gatland named Sam Warburton as his captain but everyone will have the chance to earn a Test spot
It’s certainly some challenge, especially when you consider that the Lions haven’t tasted series glory for some 16 years.
But it’s one that Gatland and fellow coaches Andy Farrell, Rob Howley and Graham Rowntree are already embracing and one that they know they are privileged to be a part of.
“The Lions is the envy of world rugby. It’s one of the old traditional touring teams.
“To get a squad together, travel away for a number of weeks and play 10 games is something that the southern hemisphere teams don’t get the opportunity to do anymore.
“It’s great for the game with the interest it creates, the money it generates, the touring fans and the atmosphere we’re going to get at the games.
“It’s massively challenging for us but it’s a concept that we need to protect. It’s hopefully going to be one hell of a tour.”