Saturday 21 April 2018

Jim Glennon: Lions feel heat under Kiwi microscope and it will only get hotter

Maori All Blacks perform the Haka prior to the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour match yesterday. Photo: Getty
Maori All Blacks perform the Haka prior to the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour match yesterday. Photo: Getty

Jim Glennon

So, the first Test is almost upon us. The Lions have worked their way through the preparatory phase of their latest assault on the New Zealand rugby citadel with mixed results - in terms of performances and results. But now it's time to get real.

The unique pressures and challenges of touring New Zealand have been taking their toll. Game one, against the Provincial Barbarians, yielded a very shaky win but with a follow-up defeat to the Blues the pressure was on Warren Gatland and Co very quickly.

An impressive morale-boosting win in Christchurch over Crusaders, the current standard-bearers for southern hemisphere provincial rugby, seemed to have steadied the ship until the midweek group once more failed to get over the line in Dunedin on Tuesday from a winning position against Highlanders.

That those opening five games in 15 days haven't led to as lengthy a casualty list as might have been expected is definitely something to be thankful for, but with the intensity relentlessly ramping up and fatigue an inevitable consequence, the capacity of many of those struggling midweek players to step up to the plate at Test level is about to be tested to the full.

Countless former internationals have spoken in recent months of the mental challenges inherent in suddenly transferring from the long evenings of our European early summer to the dreariness of a New Zealand winter.

There's nothing new in the all-consuming attention on the Lions in New Zealand, but it is new for the players in terms of experiencing it first hand. It's a rugby cauldron. For their most recent trip to New Zealand in 2005, Lions' head coach Clive Woodward famously identified the local media and public as the sixteenth member of the opposition. His response - the appointment of Tony Blair's media advisor Alistair Campbell to the travelling party - was ill-advised, to say the least.

Warren Gatland would, and indeed should, have been confident of having a very good handle on what he and his squad were facing into but it seems that even he has been taken by surprise by the level and nature of the scrutiny, often personal, directed towards them.

While the New Zealand public are well-known for their obsession with the game and, dare I say it, a degree of arrogance towards any player or team from outside their rugby archipelago, the tourists' opening performance provided local media with the whiff of vulnerability they craved; the defeat in Eden Park by the Blues meant it was open season.

Notwithstanding a possible upturn in fortunes on the pitch in the coming games, it's outside of the playing arena where the pressure on the Lions players and their management will continue to increase.

The circumstances, and sheer intensity, on and off the field, of this tour bear absolutely no comparison, but it has brought back memories of my own New Zealand touring experience, 30 years ago this month.

Although not touring New Zealand in the sense that the Lions are, that trek south with the Irish team of '87 for the inaugural World Cup was an unforgettable few weeks.

The Kiwi fans had much bigger fish to fry then than our Irish squad, but the national interest in rugby, bordering on obsession, was something I found difficult to get past in a country I found difficult to appreciate.

Our own performances on the pitch didn't exactly lift our mood, nor did some of the squad's off-field travails, but the entire experience left me with an inability to personally relate to the glowing reviews of the country from supporters of tours and World Cups in the years since.

As the current tour progresses, regardless of results, the management of the group and their downtime becomes crucially important. The importance of strong personalities and characters to lift the mood will only grow, particularly when the midweek games come to an end and those on the fringes have time on their hands, and possible mischief on their minds.

One of the criticisms of most tours of the professional era, including Woodward's '05 group, has been the poor quality of the provincial opposition served up by the host union and the inadequate prep-time to bring the tourists up to pitch for the most daunting of Test series.

This tour certainly hasn't fallen into that trap, and while Gatland has long pressed the point that some losses in the run-up to the first Test would be acceptable if it left the team better prepared, those losses bring more pressure.

New Zealand is as it always has been: the toughest rugby tour destination of all, to an extent that even the Waikatonian in charge of this one may well have underestimated. Were his squad to emerge victorious in three weeks, it would be the Lions' finest hour, eclipsing the heady days of New Zealand '71 and South Africa '74 and '97.

A fascinating few weeks lie ahead.

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