George North excited by potential of Lions squad

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George North.

George North feels “the potential is pretty exciting” of a British and Irish Lions squad arriving for its six-week mission in New Zealand.

North and company were due to land in Auckland early on Wednesday, with the opening game of a demanding 10-match tour arriving just three days later.

The Lions’ only previous Test series triumph against New Zealand came 46 years ago, while their fixture schedule includes appointments with five Super Rugby sides, plus the Maori All Blacks.

It all reaches a climax with three Tests against the world champions, and Wales wing North, who starred for the triumphant Lions in Australia four years ago, is likely to be a key figure.

“I think the squad Gats (Lions head coach Warren Gatland ) has picked has got a mixture of that wide rugby with great skill-sets and speed, and there is also power and some serious force up front,” North told Press Association Sport.

“From a back’s point of view, that is all you can ask for – front-foot ball, and quick, as and when it comes, to go wide, wide.

“The potential is pretty exciting.”

North’s club Northampton were involved in two end-of-season European Champions Cup qualification play-offs earlier this month, which meant he was unavailable for both pre-tour Lions training camps in Wales and Ireland.

“It was strange,” he added. “You want to be present in all the camps to get yourself in the best position to learn your role as early as you can and understand the way that Gats wants to play.

“In 2013, I was there the whole time, and to have only been there for ‘messy Monday’ (Lions player administration day on May 8 ) and the day I fly, is completely different.

“A lot of hard work goes into it – your conditioning, weights, team sessions – and also bonding time as well, getting to know each other better before facing what is a massive task.”

North has been on the losing side three times against New Zealand during his 69-cap Wales career, while the Lions’ last experience at All Blacks’ hands was a sobering one, losing all three Tests 12 years ago and conceding 107 points.

“They are world champions and play an amazing brand of rugby,” said North, who is a Gillette ambassador for the Lions’ New Zealand tour.

“I think a lot of it is just the confidence they have in each other and the team to know they can go points behind, they can be under the cosh for a while, but they can turn games around and still win.

“The skill-set they have from numbers one to 23 – they’ve got props throwing 20-metre passes off left or right hand – their game understanding and game awareness is great.

“And if you look at the fact how well the New Zealand Super Rugby sides are playing, it shows exactly where they are and the quality of players they’ve got.”

North is among a group of players who were involved during the 2013 Lions trip to Australia – he scored tries in two of the three Tests – and he believes that experience will help this time around.

“I think from a player’s point of view, we learnt a lot from 2013, not just from what we achieved as a squad, and we can use that as a springboard to push on again,” he added.

“The whole tour was a great experience, and one that will always stay with me. It is a tremendous honour to be selected for the Lions.

“I had never experienced it before, but special is the word to describe it. Players from four nations coming together is brilliant.”

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Lions will 'struggle' against All Blacks, says Eddie Jones

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Eddie Jones.

England coach Eddie Jones said the British and Irish Lions will “struggle” to beat the All Blacks in their three-Test series because of the tactics of their coach, Warren Gatland.

Jones said the Lions, who are expected to favour Gatland’s “Warrenball” approach of powerful, direct running, must win the first Test on June 24 or be prepared for a “tough old series”.

“It is going to be very tough for them mate,” Jones told the London Telegraph’s Full Contact podcast.

“They have picked a certain style of team based on the influence of the Welsh coaches. So I think they are looking to attack like Wales with big, gainline runners with not much ball movement.

“I think you struggle to beat the All Blacks like that.”

Gatland, who is Wales’s head coach, led the Lions to a 2-1 victory over Australia on their last tour in 2013.

The New Zealander has Wales’s Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins in his backroom staff, along with England’s Steve Borthwick, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree.

“The All Blacks are not only a physical contest, it is a big mental contest,” warned Jones, who orchestrated five wins over New Zealand when he was coach of Australia.

“You have to be very disciplined in the way you play, you’ve got to chip away at them.

“You’ve got to keep the pressure on, you’ve got to exert pressure in areas that they don’t like, which is traditionally the close set-piece play but then have the ability when you create opportunities, to turn that into points.

“Ireland did it really well and I think the Lions are going to struggle. If they win the first Test, they win the series. If they don’t, I think it might be a tough old series for them.”

Gatland has said he takes inspiration from Ireland’s shock victory over New Zealand in Chicago last year, which halted a world-record run of 18 straight victories.

Jones added that while Gatland’s Wales play to a “system”, his England side — who have won the last two Six Nations — “play much more with our eyes open” and try to stay alive to opportunities.

The Lions, whose only Test series victory in New Zealand was in 1971, arrive on Wednesday at the start of a nearly six-week tour.

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George Ford wants England to match Argentina's passion

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George Ford.

England fly-half George Ford has warned the Six Nations champions to prepare for a “hostile” atmosphere when they travel to Argentina for a two-Test series next month.

Ford, along with several other players in the England squad, may have been overlooked for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand but he insisted there was no time for regrets ahead of a testing trip to South America.

With several first-choice players on Lions duty, England coach Eddie Jones has selected a mixture of experience hands and raw novices, with little in between, for the Argentina series.

Facing the Pumas will be a new experience for some members of a revamped England squad but not Ford.

“The one thing, playing with Argentinian players as well, and against them, they’re so passionate about the game that that’s the type of game you’re going to come up against,” Ford told AFP at England’s south coast training camp in Brighton.

“The fans are just (as) passionate and emotional as the players are, it’ll be hostile.

“On the pitch they’ll be physical, they get into you and they pride themselves on being physical, so it’s something we’ve got to be excited about and take that challenge front on.

“If you want to win any Test match these days you’ve probably got to win the physicality battle and the Argentinians are probably up there with the world’s best at that,” he added.

Ford, who is returning to Leicester from English Premiership rivals Bath in time for the start of the 2017/18 season, cited Pumas wing Horacio Agulla, now with French club Castres, as a case in point.

“I used to play with Horacio Agulla, at Leicester and Bath.

“He never looked like a massive winger by any stretch of the imagination, but he punched way above his weight, he used to fly into tackles, he used to fly into carries and I thought that summed Argentina up really, just go at everything 100 percent, be emotional and show that with their physicality.

“They’re obviously very nice guys off the pitch but they flick a switch on it.”

Since the tour was scheduled, the series has been given added spice by the fact that England and Argentina have been drawn in the same pool, along with France, for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

The last World Cup, in England two years ago, saw Argentina make it all the way to the semi-finals.

England, by contrast suffered an embarrassing first-round exit that led to the sacking of Stuart Lancaster and his replacement by Australian coach Jones.

“I think it will give us a greater understanding of how to play against Argentina,” said the 24-year-old Ford.

“Obviously we had a meeting earlier and we spoke about the World Cup group and you’ve basically got to beat some really good teams whoever you play. France, Argentina, when you get to the quarters, it’ll be a tough game.

“It will be a really good test for us.”

Before they leave for Argentina, England play the Barbarians in a non-cap international at Twickenham on Sunday.

As well as their Lions, England will be without players from Exeter and Wasps, who contest the Premiership final at Twickenham on Saturday.

The fact that Northampton played on Friday, edging out Stade Francais in a tight final qualifier for next season’s European Champions Cup, means regular captain Dylan Hartley will be missing as well.

Ford and former England skipper Chris Robshaw have been named as co-captains for the Barbarians match.

Now a veteran of 35 Tests, Ford was keen to embrace leadership duties.

“I’m looking to try develop that all the time really,” he explained. “As a 10, you’re more an on-field leader but I suppose especially last week and this week with Dylan not being here for example, there’s some more off-field stuff that I’ve tried to develop.”

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