The Lions coach could not believe his luck when he found out the All Blacks had dropped their leading tryscorer Julian Savea and thrown 20-year-old rookie Rieko Ioane into the biggest rugby union match since the 2015 World Cup final.
A buoyant Gatland believes the All Blacks have made a mistake in picking Ioane on the wing and the workmanlike Ryan Crotty at outside centre, and also senses a weakness on the New Zealand bench which is normally such a strong point.
“It’s a great position for us to be in as a team because we feel we have a pretty strong starting XV but also some real impact coming off the bench. I’m not sure looking at their bench that it is as strong as it has been in the past,” said Gatland.
“We were surprised by Crotty being selected at 13 and Savea, who has been a constant for them, being replaced. I know how good Ioane is but this is a big game for everyone.”
Just how big is illustrated by the army of red which has descended on Auckland ahead of the game and Lions captain Peter O’Mahony hopes their swelling numbers can tip the balance as they attempt to end New Zealand’s 23-year unbeaten record at Eden Park.
“It’s a huge task obviously with the calibre of player New Zealand have and their record at Eden Park is impressive, but it’s going to be a different animal at the weekend. There are going to be 20,000-odd Lions fans there,” said O’Mahony.
Gatland wants the Lions to deploy the strong setpiece which has been a staple of the tour against the All Blacks but also to surprise them with adventure.
“We’re happy with how our setpiece is but I don’t know if it’s going to be enough playing a setpiece-orientated game to try and ground them into the ground,” said Gatland.
“When we get the opportunity we’ve got to go and score some tries and that’s why our selection is the way it is.”
One of the biggest calls at the conclusion of an 80-minute selection meeting was the decision to name Saracens-bound Scarlet Liam Williams at full-back.
“He’s played his way into the Test team by his performance,” said Gatland. “You know that every now and then there might be a brain explosion with Liam and we saw that with the yellow card [against the Blues], but we saw last year he caused the All Blacks problems with his running and attacking game.
“The message to the players before we came out to New Zealand was that to play the All Blacks you have to be bold and take risks.”
Gatland admitted preferring Alun Wyn Jones to start ahead of Maro Itoje was a “toss of a coin” affair but is banking on the contentious call yielding double dividends.
“Alun Wyn Jones knows himself it was a big call between him and Maro and he knows he is under pressure. He knows he has to go out and perform,” he said.
“There was a long debate about whether Alun Wyn fighting for his position would bring the best out of him.
“Is Maro able to make a huge impact coming off the bench? Yes, I believe he can.”
The bookmakers have New Zealand as strong favourites even if the rain which blew in yesterday and is predicted to extend to game day is seen as a leveller.
The Lions recognise the scale of the challenge but Gatland is confident enough to have begun his planning for next week’s Second Test on the basis of a famous triumph at Eden Park.
“We have even spoken as coaches that if we win on Saturday night, then you get a different animal of All Black arriving next week and we will be then be looking to potentially make a few changes for week two,” he said.
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