Forget tonight, it just doesn’t matter. Whether the Lions win, lose or draw against the Chiefs will have no bearing on what happens in Saturday’s first test against the All Blacks at Eden Park.
A loss to the Chiefs will dent the hopes those in the midweek team harbour of breaking into the test side.
And it will take a little bit more sheen off the Lions’ lustre, but only if they go on to lose the tests.
If the Lions win the test series, nothing else will matter.
Coach Warren Gatland knows that. He’s based his campaign on it. He told me as much in the arrivals hall at Auckland Airport about an hour after the Lions pitched up in New Zealand.
“What I learnt in 2013 is ‘who remembers the midweek games, who remembers the other games?’” Gatland said.
“If we drop a game or two on the way as we are looking at combinations or trying things out, it’s not going to be the end of the world. It’s all about preparing (for) and winning the tests.”
He’s stayed true to that and now the first test is set up as an intriguing clash of styles.
Despite attempts by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to goad the Lions into playing more rugby, we all know how both sides will play.
He’d love the Lions to have a crack out wide, to use the ball freely, to chance their arm, because he knows it’s not their natural game, that they aren’t very good at it and that it will play into the All Blacks’ counter-attacking strength.
Gatland’s not biting – and why should he? The Lions have their style. It’s worked for them against the Crusaders and Māori All Blacks, and he’s hoping it will work against the All Blacks too.
The Lions base their game around the set piece, keeping the ball in close, slowing the game down as they rumble it up with a succession of driving mauls, a bit like Waikato of the later 1980s and early 1990s.
When the ball goes to their backs it will be brought back in close by Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies for the forwards to rumble on again.
Don’t expect the Lions to attack from inside their 22. Don’t look for long skip passes to the wing. Don’t hold your breath for audacious counter attacks. It won’t happen, and that’s OK.
It’s OK that the Lions don’t play like the All Blacks. Throughout their history the All Blacks haven’t always played like these All Blacks. Some All Blacks teams were so boring they would’ve made the Lions look exhilarating.
But will what the Lions offer be enough? Will they be able to squeeze the life out of the All Blacks’ attack as they did in Christchurch and Rotorua.
“I’ve been here since 2004 and every year we get told we’re going to be targeted at the set piece. We will look forward to it.”
Will kicking penalties be enough or will they need to score more than the two tries they managed against the Māori?
In their last 20 tests, the All Blacks have an average winning score of 42-14. Six times they’ve kept the opposition to under 10 points and only four times have they conceded more than 20.
Their only defeat was to Ireland who scored five tries that day in Chicago. Five tries. The Lions have scored seven tries in their five games on tour, and failed to cross the chalk against the Crusaders.
They will find it just as hard to score against the All Blacks.
In their wins against the Crusaders and Māori the Lions were able to hog the ball and control the pace of the game. That won’t be as easy to achieve against the All Blacks, who showed in their 12 tries-to-nil romp against Samoa they remain as scintillating on attack as ever.
The All Blacks do kick a lot. They do play for territory and they aren’t afraid of an arm wrestle. They are used to playing against big men in Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship.
The worry for Gatland is that the All Blacks will get their share of the ball and have more fire power in almost every position in the backs.
And many of the All Blacks forwards are better with the ball in hand than some of the Lions backs.
Against Samoa, big lock Brodie Retallick was throwing passes out of the back of his hand as if he were Sonny Bill Williams. A few years ago, in driving rain in New Plymouth, he caught a pass aimed at his toes and threw a skip ball for wing Julian Savea to score against the Pumas.
He’s not alone. Such skills permeate the pack and it means forwards and backs can seamlessly integrate on attack.
If the All Blacks are able to dictate the pace of the first test the Lions will struggle to keep up. They will be run off their feet and as they tire, the holes will get bigger, the pace quick and so the circle goes.
Equally, if the Lions are able to slow it down, sap the All Blacks’ energy defending mauls and draw penalties, then they are in with a very real chance of winning the match.
They will need to truly suffocate the match as they did against the Māori with 68 percent of the ball and 76 percent territory.
Hansen chuckled when he was asked after the Samoa match if the All Blacks could foot it with the Lions pack.
“I’ve been here since 2004 and every year we get told we’re going to be targeted at the set piece. We will look forward to it, we’ll get ourselves ready for it and hopefully we will match them, or be better.”
Even if the All Blacks only match the Lions up front it will be enough.