Thursday 23 November 2017

Fast start will send warning to Aussies

Lions must hit the ground running to set right tone for forthcoming Tests

Alex Cuthbert cools down using mobile outside air conditioning fans
Alex Cuthbert cools down using mobile outside air conditioning fans

Will Greenwood

Today is when the fantasy ends and the Lions reality begins. Warren Gatland will have been working with the players over the past few weeks, darting about and trying to get as much done as he can.

Those Lions players not involved in the last championship matches in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland will have been hard at work, trying to build an understanding and create a team quickly and cohesively. Tours are getting shorter and the players and back-room staff will have to hit the ground running.

But, while many people may see it as a negative, for me it can be a positive. There are fewer games and fewer chances for injury.

Professional players today should be good enough to drop in and out of a team more smoothly than in the past. Helping this will be Gatland's simple philosophy on rugby: he likes his teams to get across the gain line and play in behind the defences.

This message is likely to be echoed by the rest of his coaching staff.

In defence, Andy Farrell will want the Lions to move off the line with speed and aggression.

Graham Rowntree will want his forwards to be combative yet in control of their technique.

Rob Howley will want speed of pass and classic lines.

If anything, the unique needs of the Lions tourists tend to mean complexities are stripped away. Anything that can confuse or complicate is jettisoned in the interest of unified comprehension. And, believe me, there is plenty of room for confusion because a Lions tour is a mix of magical and mad moments that disorientate you.

Forget the exhilaration of selection or the sudden flood of information and kit and interviews. This tour will be the most observed and intruded upon in history.

From the moment you get your shirt, usually handed out by the tour manager, captain, coach or a former Lion or special guest, to the moment you close the door after returning home, you feel as if you are on fire. Everything is turned up to 11, all the time.

As you sit in the team room with the rest of the squad, waiting to hear the team list, you are buzzing. When your name gets read out that first time, midweek or weekend side, you feel the hairs on your neck stand up. The fabric of the shirt feels like nothing you have ever felt before. As you grip it, you realise that you are now part of rugby's great history.

Then come the handshakes from players you respect and want to emulate. What makes this weirder still is that before, you were lining up against them, seeing them as the enemy. A sense of discombobulation is carried through to the changing room and you have to remind yourself not to be a tourist and gawk, amazed, at the pre-match routines you have never seen before.

In 1997, I was picked for the first Lions game after an injury to Scott Gibbs. As I sat getting ready, I thought something terrible was happening to Neil Jenkins, that he was on the verge of death.

FREAKED

It freaked me out, until someone explained to that he was always violently sick before matches.

In the midst of it, all you can do is focus on your own game and find reassurance in the fact that rugby will always be rugby.

The game is a universal language and the Lions will have to spell out their intent because the Australians will be watching.

The Wallabies will be looking for calls, patterns, moves, units, weaknesses and any way to start the off-field psychological battle.

As players, if you get it right, you can stoke up the fans and feed off their buzz. The red army that follows the Lions squad can be its secret weapon. By the time the Tests come around, they could make the difference between a win and a loss.

The names of the players picked today are almost irrelevant. What matters is how they lay the foundation for the rest of the tour. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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