A “tasty” training session for the British & Irish Lions on Thursday has shown the detour to Queenstown earlier this week has not taken the edge off the tourists' intensity heading towards Saturday's series-deciding third Test against New Zealand, writes Simon Lewis in Auckland.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland on Thursday defended his decision to take the Lions for a short break to the scenic mountain resort on the South Island following last Saturday's series-levelling victory over the All Blacks in Wellington.
This weekend's game at Eden Park has given the Lions the chance to win a series on New Zealand soil for only the second time in 11 tours here with a victory emulating the heroics of the 1971 touring party.
Yet Gatland has been criticised for taking his players out of the pre-game bubble and allowing his squad to relax and recharge between Tests while the All Blacks headed straight to Auckland to begin their preparations.
“I always get questioned about everything, it’s not unusual for people to have a pop at me and question things,” Gatland said on Thursday having named an unchanged matchday squad for the final Test from the one which lined out at Westpac Stadium and beat the world champions 24-21.
“We had a pretty tasty session today, with some verbals. 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.
“Look, all I know is these guys needed a break. They have been training for 11 months. We had one day off, which was the Wednesday before the first Test, where we weren’t travelling or doing something.
“The plan was to give them a couple of days off this week. Now we could have come straight to Auckland, but when you come to New Zealand, so far away, it’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world. So when you get a chance to go to Queenstown and you want to give the players an opportunity to experience that, why not avail of that, why not use that as a chance to have a couple of days off?
“We could have done it anywhere, but we decided to do it somewhere that’s incredibly beautiful and we did it the same in Noosa (in Queensland, Australia) four years ago. It’s something we found worked in 2009 and 2013 and we have used it with Wales on a few occasions. It’s not anything different to what the players have experienced in the past.”
Lions captain Sam Warburton backed his boss's decision, adding: “It was good to have that break in Queenstown. 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.”
Gatland even received support from opposite number Steve Hansen, who earlier on Thursday compared the All Blacks being at the outset of their season to the Lions' players heading into their final game of an 11-month campaign with clubs and countries.
"We've got to keep building our understanding of what it is we are trying to do, and how we do it. I can understand why they (Lions) have gone some from R&R, but we are not at that stage in our season,” Hansen said.
The All Blacks selectors have several changes to the side after last weekend's first home defeat since 2009. Hansen had to plan without Sonny Bill Williams following the centre's red card in Wellington and has replaced at inside centre with Ngani Laumape, who made his Test debut off the bench last week. There is also a first Test start for full-back Jordie Barrett, younger brother of fly-half Beauden Barrett and replacement lock Scott Barrett while wing Julian Savea will make his first appearance of the series, replacing Rieko Ioane, who has been ill this week. Israel Dagg vacates the No.15 jersey and returns to the right wing in place of Waisake Naholo, who has been rested as a precaution following a concussion in Wellington.
Kieran Read will once again captain the side as he makes his 100th Test appearance on Saturday while there was some good news for first-choice full-back Ben Smith, who was concussed during the first Test in Auckland and stood down for the rest of the Lions series as a precaution.
“He has had some tests done over the last few days in Dunedin, and he has been cleared of concussion,” Hansen said of Smith. “He doesn't have a concussion problem. What he does have, though, is an inner ear malfunction which is causing him to get a bit of vertigo and dizziness. That is now cleared, and he is coming back up and will be training with the boys.
“It's great news.”