Saturday 16 December 2017

Travel bonus for Lions on capital return

HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 20: Jared Payne of the Lions runs in his team's third try during the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour match between the Chiefs and the British & Irish Lions at the Waikato Stadium on June 20, 2017 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 20: Jared Payne of the Lions runs in his team's third try during the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour match between the Chiefs and the British & Irish Lions at the Waikato Stadium on June 20, 2017 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The Lions returned to their Auckland base last night in a far better place than they were in when they left 13 days ago on the back of their loss to the Blues.

Yesterday, they claimed their fourth win in six games on tour and the focus will switch quickly to Eden Park and the first Test against the world champion All Blacks on Saturday.

Elliot Daly of the Lions. Photo: Getty Images
Elliot Daly of the Lions. Photo: Getty Images

It has been a whistle-stop tour around the country, but they have learned much on their travels.

The itinerary has been unforgiving and there have been low points, but the team has improved incrementally with time and are now in a good place going into the opener.

The first string have the look of a strong unit about them and you would back them against most teams, but they are playing the best and the task of putting all of the various elements together to come out with a successful result against New Zealand is a daunting one.

Despite his assertion that the Super Rugby teams are not too far off the level of the national team, Warren Gatland will know that there is a massive step up on the way and he is hoping against hope that his team can click in time.

Over the course of the warm-up games, they have gotten used to the New Zealand style of play and evolved into a team that is based on their ferocious defensive line-speed, formidable set-piece and highly accurate kicking game.

It's been enough for the shadow Test side to beat the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks, but this is another level. Yesterday, they added some free-running back-play to the mix in playable conditions, but it remains to be seen whether that carries through to the Tests.

"The Lions are getting better and better," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said.

"When they get settled on combinations and stuff I think it will be a pretty exciting series. They were able to dominate us.

"Our lineout was (dominated), most of it was our issues but they're going to come up against a pretty good set-piece in the All Blacks and they're going to have to earn it and fight for it.

"I think it's going to be the series that everyone thought it would be maybe a month ago. Maybe there's been a little bit of doubt recently but they're getting better and better and as we know, when they're down the right end of the field they can play footy and we saw a bit of that tonight."

Having watched other teams struggle in the face of Andy Farrell's all-encompassing line-speed while playing off their scrum-half, Glasgow Warriors-bound Rennie devised a new plan of trying to get outside the rush through the No 10.

It didn't work, but he sees potential for big gains if the All Blacks can exploit the wide space.

"We were one pass away from getting right in behind them," he said.

"We had a number of guys who got half breaks and maybe we were a little bit short on support, working hard enough to get in those positions.

"That's a real strength of the All Blacks, obviously, when you look at the quality of their midfield. We saw most teams playing off nine against them and going around the corner and running into another wall. We tried playing more off 10, prepared to give up eight or 10 metres of ground to try and get quick ball off that ruck to try and stretch them on the next one but they did a good job of slowing our pill down and when we came around the corner there was still a bit of a wall there."

Certainly, Gatland believes that the warm-up games have left the Lions in a strong place ahead of Saturday's eagerly anticipated clash.

"I am still not happy that we lost a couple of games," he said of the build-up. "We have always said how difficult this tour was, we known how tough the schedule is and the quality opposition. It's not like previous tours.

"This is unlike anything that's been taken on before. We said if we lost a couple of games, it's about improving from week to week. We have demonstrated that. We have got better the longer we have been in New Zealand, as combinations have come together. We said we would do that and we have done.

"I think the performances have been good. Not everyone agrees with that opinion. We are pretty happy with where we are at the moment. The selection meeting will be tough and that's the way we want it."

That meeting will take place overnight, with the team being named tonight at 8pm Irish time.

Then, the debate can stop and the focus can turn to the small matter of winning at a venue where New Zealand have not lost since France beat them there 23 years ago.

"From a defensive point of view, we are getting stronger and stronger. We are playing against teams that have scored multiple tries week in, week out and we are strangling them a little bit," Gatland said of the improvements.

"But on Saturday we are up against the best team in world in their own back yard where they haven't lost since 1994. It's going a big test for us."

According to English winger Elliot Daly, the management have not yet addressed the Eden Park factor.

The Lions have already tasted defeat at the stadium which hosts the first and third Test but as yet the mystique and aura of the place has not been a topic of discussion. "It might get brought up but I think the good thing about this squad is that we only think about the next game. Tonight that was the Chiefs and we'll speak about the All Blacks tomorrow and Thursday and go on from there," he said. "We are confident after what we have done so far and we can only take confidence into the game. That's what we're going to do."

So, the Lions are feeling good after their tour of the country. Back in the capital for the main event, their next mission is taking on the best team in the world in their fortress.

Their game-plan is relatively limited, but is has been effective thus far and it remains to be seen if it will be enough to topple the men in black.

Irish Independent

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