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Mind games have begun

Captain Sam Warburton, left, with coach Warren Gatland during the British and Irish Lions tour squad and captain announcement. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

By Jake Beleski

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If the last 24 hours are anything to go by, we’re in for a rollicking couple of months in the lead up to the British and Irish Lions’ arrival.

The first test match between the All Blacks and Lions is still nine weeks away, but already the war of words has begun.

Straight after naming his touring squad in London yesterday morning (NZT), Lions’ coach Warren Gatland wasted no time pointing out the area he thinks the All Blacks are most vulnerable.

And it’s safe to say most Kiwis would probably agree with him at first glance.

Goal kicking has been an area of concern for the All Blacks since Dan Carter’s retirement after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and Gatland was quick to point out the depth his squad has in that department.

“Beauden Barrett is not kicking goals at the moment, and it is one area which could be a point of difference,” he said.

“We will have four or five of the best goal kickers in the world.”

The kickers he refers to are Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton, England’s Owen Farrell, and the Welsh pair of Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny.

All four possess incredible kicking stats in international rugby, but All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen was quick to point out there were situations where their composure had failed them.

“I remember a game in 2013 (against Ireland) . . . statistics don’t mean anything when pressure is involved,” he said.

“They (Ireland) should have won the game with goal kicking, but we did with a guy kicking from the sideline.”

The match in question was the All Blacks’ epic come-from-behind 24-22 win over Ireland in Dublin, after they had been down 19-0 in the first half.

Sexton had the chance to put his side up by eight with a penalty from a handy angle with less than five minutes to play, but pushed his attempt wide.

“They have some very good goal kickers, no disputing that, and goalkicking is very important to the game, but it’s all about how you deal with the pressure in the big moments,” Hansen said.

“It’s under pressure which counts, not the ones in front.”


The NZ factor


There will be more Kiwi influence in the touring group than most would have predicted, with two New Zealand-born players making Gatland’s 41-man squad.

England’s Ben Te’o, a rugby league convert who has excelled in the English set-up, was widely tipped to make the squad before the official announcement.

But the inclusion of the versatile Jared Payne caught many by surprise.

Payne has enjoyed a successful stint with Ireland after previously playing for the Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues in New Zealand.

Lions’ assistant coach Andy Farrell said the 31-year-old, who has had 20 games for Ireland, was a pleasure to work with.

“He’s a very experienced guy, who galvanises the backline, makes other people around him very comfortable.”

Te’o is well known in this country for his exploits in rugby league.

He had successful stints in the NRL with the Wests Tigers, Brisbane Broncos and South Sydney Rabbitohs before switching codes and moving to England.

He had been used mainly at centre for Eddie Jones’ England squad, but Gatland said they had chosen him primarily as a No 12.

“He has the ability to offload and has more strings to his bow than just getting across the gain-line.

“We’ve got to match the All Blacks’ impact off the bench.”

The Lions squad will be captained by Welsh flanker Sam Warburton, and is made up of 16 Englishmen, 12 Welshmen, 11 Irishmen, and two Scotsmen.


British and Irish Lions squad


Props: Mako Vunipola (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (England), Joe Marler (England), Dan Cole (England), Tadgh Furlong (Ireland).

Hookers: Rory Best (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Jamie George (England).

Locks: Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Maro Itoje (England), Peter O’Mahoney (Ireland), Courtney Lawes (England).

Flankers: Sam Warburton (Wales, captain) Justin Tipuric (Wales), Ross Moriarty (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Sean O’Brien (Ireland).

No 8s: Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Billy Vunipola (England).

Halfbacks: Conor Murray (Ireland), Ben Youngs (England), Rhys Webb (Wales).

First fives: Dan Biggar (Wales), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England).

Centres: Ben Te’o (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Jared Payne (Ireland).

Wings: Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Liam Williams (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Elliot Daly (England), George North (Wales), Anthony Watson (England).

Fullbacks: Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales).

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