Thursday 20 July 2017

Paul O'Connell hits out at lack of preparation time in Lions schedule

Paul O'Connell
Paul O'Connell

Julian Bennetts

Paul O'Connell has criticised the British and Irish Lions' schedule as they head to New Zealand, saying the tourists should have been given more time to prepare to take on the All Blacks.

Warren Gatland's tourists fly to New Zealand tomorrow and play their first game against the Provincial Barbarians just three days after landing in the country.

That is the first of 10 games in just 35 days in an itinerary that has been described as "suicidal" by former Lions and All Blacks coach Graham Henry, with Gatland's side poised to face the New Zealand Maori and all five of the country's Super Rugby sides as well as three Tests against the world champions.

Lions legend O'Connell is hugely concerned over the time the squad has to bond and get up to speed ahead of the first Test on June 24.

Eleven members of Gatland's squad are still to join up due to club commitments. O'Connell has questioned whether financial interests were behind the decision not to move the dates of the domestic competitions to give the Lions every chance of success.

"It is a pity they weren't given more of a chance to prepare," said O'Connell. "It will be the strongest Lions squad for a very long time. The task of going to New Zealand and winning a Test series is near impossible but I do think this is potentially an amazing squad. It is a pity we didn't give them more time, but time means time out of the calendar, which costs money.

"That is probably one of the reasons the Lions haven't been given more time. It is a pity there wasn't a Hong Kong fixture or something like that, where they can go somewhere not many people know them and they can have some fun together. We had that when we went to Australia in 2013.

"I think they can win [the series] because of the quality of the players. If Ireland can beat [New Zealand] in Chicago why can't a combination of the very best players from the four home nations do it? It is just very challenging - the schedule, the lack of preparation means it is going to be very tough."

O'Connell warned that New Zealand is the most challenging of all the Lions tours with the weather and quality of the midweek opposition making it more difficult than Australia or South Africa.

"It is a very, very tough tour," he said. "You are playing Test matches against the best team in the world and then all the provincial matches are way harder than the provincial matches in any other country.

"In New Zealand it is quite tough at this time of year. You are in small towns. When you are touring in Australia you are in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth - you can get away as a group, do things and spend time with one another away from the crowd. I don't think there will be a whole lot of that now - they won't be able to do that as much on this tour as they have in the past.

"It is a really, really challenging place to play. You have to earn their respect and I have heard Graham Henry say the only way to get their respect is to beat them."

While O'Connell believes the Lions can win he does not believe New Zealand will be "particularly worried", although he believes the quality of player in the Six Nations is far greater than when they lost 3-0 in 2005. That tour struggled in part due to a split between the Test team and the midweek side, and O'Connell is adamant that unity will be key if the Lions are to triumph in New Zealand.

"There are some real game-breakers on every team in the home nations. I don't think you can always say that. We will bring absolute world-class players who are playing at the top of their potential but that in itself isn't enough," he said.

"You need a group that are playing for one another, similar to when you see Ireland playing or England playing. A group that has real clarity in what they are doing and how they are playing. A group that are really tight."

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