Sunday 25 February 2018

'We had some verbals' - Heated exchanges during Lions training ahead of third Test

The Lions warm up during a training session at QBE Stadium in Auckland today
The Lions warm up during a training session at QBE Stadium in Auckland today

Jack de Menezes

Sam Warburton admits the chance to lead the British and Irish Lions out in a third Test decider against the All Blacks is why he chose to pursue a career in rugby all those years ago, with the Wales flanker on the verge of something special with the rest of the side, yet that pressure looked to shine through on Thursday in what was described “pretty tasty session” in training.

After the highs of the three-day break in Queenstown, the Lions were brought crashing back down to earth on Thursday. Team selections were the order of the day in Auckland on Thursday, but there was also a temper-fuelled training session to deal with along with atrocious weather that could yet return for Saturday’s third Test.

Yet for Lions captain Warburton, it is simply a case of business as usual. “It was good to have that break in Queenstown,” he said on Thursday. “We have been training for a long time this season. It’s about recovering and getting the bodies and the minds right.

“I won’t get too excited until match day, you don’t want to waste too much emotional energy over such a big game. You appreciate it is going to be probably the biggest game we have played in.

“Every sacrifice you have made since you were a young kid and decided to be a rugby player is all about, for moments like this.”

Warburton was named as captain of an unchanged Lions side by head coach Warren Gatland, who also confirmed that training today carried an edge that had not been seen so far on the tour of New Zealand – though it was something that he remembered experiencing four years ago before the third Test decider against Australia.

“We had a pretty tasty session today, with some verbals,” said Gatland. “It was a bit testy. Everyone is pretty aware how important the game is. It’s about having emotional control, you want to take it to the edge but you don’t want to go over the top as well.”

The problem is that of the 37 players remaining in the Lions squad – with the original 41 depleted by the early departures of Stuart Hogg, Ross Moriarty, Robbie Henshaw and George North – 14 of them had just been told that they will not feature again on the tour, with Thursday’s training session likely to be their final act on the trip as Friday’s behind-closed-doors captain’s run will feature the matchday squad only.

The Kiwi coach wants to find the right way of ridding the penalties that have blighted his side’s performance so far on this tour. Despite last weekend’s 24-21 victory over the All Blacks, the Lions could easily have lost the match – and the series – as Beauden Barrett missed three penalties at goal that would have turned the tables on the result.

Yet he did take confidence from the fact that the Lions’ preparations this week have not centred around how they can stop the threat of the All Blacks, but of the way they can hurt the reigning world champions with their own game.

“We weren’t happy with the number of penalties we gave away, so that’s been our focus in terms of not giving away soft penalties,” he added.

“We haven’t really spoken about the All Blacks. It’s been about us. It feels a bit strange and almost like a role reversal. Normally when you pick a team to play the All Blacks you try to stop all their threats, but we haven’t even spoken about that, we’ve just concentrated on our own game and doing what’s been successful for us. There hasn’t been too much chat about the individuals in their team. We didn’t even speak today about the team they selected.”

But there was one All Blacks name that Gatland was willing to talk about, and that involved the return of the prolific wing, Julian Savea, whose international record of 46 tries in 53 Tests goes before him.

“The one surprise for me initially was probably Julian Savea being called back in,” Gatland said. “But you can understand the selection in terms of his experience with Jordie Barrett at 15 and [Ngani] Laumape at 12 both having first starts.

“We expect the All Blacks to be much more aggressive defensively and Savea to play a lot more front line to try and shut us down.”

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