All Black coach Steve Hansen is raising the pressure on the British and Irish Lions by questioning whether they will be able to deal with the expectation that will surround them on their tour of New Zealand, and has suggested that Warren Gatland, his opposite number, could struggle to maintain harmony within his squad once test selections are made.

In an exclusive interview, Hansen paid tribute to the calibre of the 2017 tourists, labelling them "the strongest that I have seen in a long time", but said he believed they had an enormous amount to do to cope with what awaits them in New Zealand - principally the yearning for success among the 20,000 Lions fans expected to travel.

As Hansen pointed out, the All Blacks are used to delivering against expectancy, more so than any other team. What inspires one can be overbearing for another.

"The Lions would be foolish to think that there's not an expectation there for them to do well," Hansen said. "There will be a massive expectation on them. If you're a Lions fan, you'd look at it and say, 'We've got four countries going into one against the opposition, we should be able to beat these blokes'. That is an expectation to be dealt with.

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"We have our own expectations. People expect us to win, too. We don't get to avoid it. But it's something that we live with all the time. And have had to learn to deal with. And the Lions will have to learn to deal with it. And I'm not sure [how and if they can deal with it]. Each team has its own unique way of dealing with it. My point is that 20,000 will be coming out with a massive expectation. Yes, they want to see some good rugby, but they also want to see the Lions win."

Hansen affected to make the Lions favourites, even though they have only ever won one series in New Zealand (in 1971). Indeed, the tourists have won only five series against anyone, the last, of course, under Gatland in Australia in 2013.

Gatland is well aware of the historically arduous nature of the challenge, and also the difficulty of keeping the squad tightly knit and on-message. He has selected 41 players, just three fewer than Sir Clive Woodward did for the disastrous trip to New Zealand in 2005, and he is well aware that the commitment has to be to the Lions cause, not to individual ambitions and interests. Hansen recognises that and pondered if it was possible when the rivalries between the four countries are so deep-rooted.

Warren Gatland faces a tricky job knitting players from four nations together. Photo / Getty Images
Warren Gatland faces a tricky job knitting players from four nations together. Photo / Getty Images

"They will all be wanting to start, but only one [in each position] can," said Hansen, who was Graham Henry's assistant when the All Blacks beat the Lions 3-0 in 2005. "That in itself will create pressure, two types of pressure, one where it will help push each other. But the other is where we will see if they can stay united because of that. Team spirit is intangible but important.

"I've never coached the Lions or had too much to do with them apart from 2005, when we played against them, but I would imagine that is one of the hardest things you have to do, to unite four different countries that have a fierce rivalry and then to bring them together and to have personalities that all want to start, to play, to be part of it. It is difficult to manage."

Hansen was surprised Dylan Hartley, the England captain, did not make the cut and that so few Scots had been selected, while he also believed Gatland faced a difficult choice between Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell at first five-eighths. He did, though, recognise the quality of player coming.

"It is the strongest Lions squad I have seen in a long time, with a lot of depth, especially in important positions like at No10," he said. "There is quality there. But who will start, Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell? I was surprised that Hartley missed out. He would be suited to playing in his homeland [he was born in Rotorua]. He plays on the edge but that is OK because that is who he is and what he is. There are not a lot of Scotsmen in there, yet Scotland were good enough to beat Ireland and Wales.

"Is that because there is a bit of bias towards Wales [from Gatland] or is it a sign of how much quality there is in the squad?"

The 10-match schedule, with five Super Rugby franchises as well as the NZ Maori on the itinerary, looked daunting enough when it was announced last year, but those teams have swept all before them this season. Hansen intends to use those games as scouting missions for future All Blacks, and pledged that his side would be more potent than ever for this series.

"The attitude of every All Black team is to get better," he said. We have identified areas where we think we can improve. We are not comfortable with who we are."

A scary thought.