Lions defend drinking and bungee jumping but wouldn't allow players to engage in one activity
The British and Irish Lions have defended themselves against accusations that they have taken their foot off the gas by allowing players to go bungee jumping and drink alcohol in Queenstown just four days before the decisive third Test against the All Blacks.
The only edict imposed for the three-day visit to New Zealand’s adrenalin-fuelled capital was that there was to be no skiing, with three players – Taulupe Faletau, George Kruis, and Jack Nowell – posting pictures of themselves leaping off the 134m high Nevis Bungee Jump only 96 hours before arguably the biggest game of their lives.
It was at the same bungee jump that Nick Easter is thought to have injured his back during the 2011 World Cup, with England being forced to bring in Thomas Waldrom as cover.
Other members of the Lions squad took part in helicopter rides and jet boat trips, with New Zealand coaches and players expressing surprise at the preparation for Saturday’s decisive third Test at Eden Park in Auckland.
“I’d rather be training, to be honest,” said flanker Jerome Kaino. “Although jet boating in Queenstown does sound pretty good. I’m sure they’ve thrown some training in there somewhere, but hey, if that’s what they think will get the best out of their players, then good on them.
“But for us, we’ve got a lot of improvements to make in how we want to play in wide areas, so we’re just worried about we’re going to do.”
Ian Foster, the All Blacks assistant coach, took exception to being reminded that Warren Gatland had said the Lions were yet to be “stressed” by New Zealand’s attacking play. Foster said: “I’m not surprised he’s having a relaxing week in Queenstown then, if that’s what he thinks.”
The Lions, though, were adamant there was no issue with the way players were spending their time off, with individuals drinking alcohol with the permission of the tourists’ management. The Lions squad also had time off at a similar stage ahead of the third Test in the last two tours. The tourists won both of those matches, with the series victory in Australia four years ago coming after the squad had spent time surfing at Noosa on the Sunshine Coast.
“We’ve not needed to put anything like that [alcohol ban] on the players,” said Paul Stridgeon, head of strength and conditioning. “The players made their own rules at the start in conjunction with the coaches.
“They have been very professional and are all very switched on. We’ve not had to put a policy on the boys. We had a social night early on in the tour but that was very helpful for bonding. The tour has been very arduous for the boys. Every day off we’ve had, we’ve travelled. The boys haven’t had any proper days off, so it’s great to have the boys refreshed. The boys have been enjoying some activities, a bit of mental and physical recovery.
“We will start training on Wednesday to be ready to go for the weekend. It mirrors 2009 and 2013 when we had a recovery part for the start of the final week. That is our blueprint. We will get something positive out of it. Whenever we’ve done it we’ve performed well.”
In 2011 Queenstown was a byword for shambles and shame during England’s World Cup campaign with scandals involving Mike Tindall and pictures of dwarf-tossing antics in a city-centre bar. That hot-spot venue, The Altitude Bar, closed in 2013 but there are plenty of other attractions and distractions available in New Zealand’s premier winter retreat, a place that attracts holidaymakers and free spirits from round the world. The fallout from that schemed break in England’s World Cup programme, designed to give players some down time, was to come back to haunt them.
The Lions are also wary of getting over-wrought too early in the week. They will train in Queenstown on Wednesday, when they normally have a day off, before flying to Auckland in the evening. In such a febrile atmosphere, with thousands more Lions supporters expected to fly in now for the third Test, the squad are mindful that they can peak too soon in their mental preparations.
“It’s similar to 2013 when Andy Farrell spoke to the boys after losing the second Test,” said Stridgeon. “They all wanted to train on the Monday, and he made a comment that if we’d done that we’d have played our Test match by Friday. It’s mental refreshment so we won’t have played our game too early. We know that the players have been on the season 11 months. We think we can negate the effects of the travel and intensity by having this week. We’ve no concerns individually. We look at the players every morning, giving them a thorough monitoring before breakfast.”
The Lions have been deprived of five players through injury – Stuart Hogg, Ross Moriarty, George North, Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw – a lower than normal casualty rate with the usual attrition levels seeing six to eight replacements being summoned. And that is even though Stridgeon reports that the contact and intensity levels have increased since the last tour.
The Lions have also tailored their conditioning programme to make sure that fitness levels are at the same high standard as those of the All Blacks. New Zealand invariably come through strongly in matches in the last 20 minutes. The Lions front-loaded their training sessions at the start of the tour, working the players harder than normal, so as to be ready for these challenges in the Test series, particularly in the need to match the All Blacks stride-for-stride in the closing stages.
“The numbers (intensity and contact) are higher than we’ve ever seen but we’ve allowed for this,” said Stridgeon. “This is the level we need to be to beat the All Blacks. We feel each game the boys have been getting better and raising that intensity. We feel we took the All Blacks to a level in the second Test and we feel we’ll be able to go higher again this weekend. We’ve got a fit squad, a few bumps and bruises, but the boys are ready to go. We can be as intense as we want to be. We’ve got the momentum now. I think we can match them in that last 20 with this team and this group of players.”