The last place a Lion wants to be? Sitting in a corporate box

There is nothing worse for a player, having to answer questions about a game that you had visualised playing in for months and yet find yourself surplus to requirements, writes Donal Lenihan.

The last place a Lion wants to be? Sitting in a corporate box

It’s the moment when reality dawns. You alight from the team bus but the players selected to start the first test turn right for the dressing room and you turn left for the coffee station.

Everyone arrives on tour as one, with aspirations of playing in that key opening Test but with the clear understanding that a sizeable portion of the squad will inevitably face disappointment.

The reality of the modern, commercially-driven Lions tour is that you can’t even share that moment of isolation with those players in a similar position. You are never off duty.

With just over an hour to go before kick-off at Eden Park last Saturday night, I decided to make my way to the commentary box for RTÉ’s radio coverage. That journey necessitated travelling through the tunnel adjacent to where the team bus drops off the teams.

At that precise moment, all the Lions squad members not required for action were being dispersed to the plethora of corporate hospitality hosting guests around the stadium. Just about the last place you want to find yourself in at that point is a corporate box. “How do you think it will go?” Oh no!

There is nothing worse for a player, having to answer questions about a game that you had visualised playing in for months and yet find yourself surplus to requirements. Having to put on a brave face in a packed room, with people you don’t even know, isn’t easy.

If you are dropped for a Six Nations game, chances are you are watching the match in the privacy of your own home, hoping the team do well but the fellow taking your place has a stinker.

That’s the reality. Lions tours just don’t afford that luxury. You are being well paid — €82,000 a man — for your six-week journey and this is what you have signed up for, so you just grin and bear it.

The faces on those Lions players as I slipped passed them told its own story.

With two tests and a final midweek game against the Hurricanes to go, however, there was also the realisation that, after the disappointing defeat despite playing well for large tracts of the game in that first test, there is still plenty to play for in a number of positions.

For some, last night’s final midweek game of the tour represented their last ever opportunity to wear a Lions jersey and, as a result, it is imperative that you do everything in your power to make a lasting impression and savour the moment.

Quite how you rationalise the predicament of the six Lion Cubs, hauled in for temporary duty for the games against the Chiefs and the Hurricanes, is another issue. They leave the squad today, after two weeks on board but with two tests still to be play. That presents another interesting dynamic.

The entire party has to quickly come to terms with the realisation that, lose on Saturday in the Cake Tin, as the Westpac Stadium is affectionately known around these parts, and the series is done and dusted with a week to go.

While nobody disputes the fact that New Zealand were the better side last weekend and assumed complete control of the game over the final 30 minutes, the Lions will take plenty from the experience in Auckland and should be in a better position to cope with the crazy intensity the All Blacks bring to games of this magnitude.

The one big disadvantage the vast majority of the English players carried into that opening test was they had never faced New Zealand before given that the two countries haven’t met since the three test series down here in 2014.

Incredibly, only one of the seven England starters and two replacements, Owen Farrell, had any previous experience of the intensity the All Blacks bring to these big tests. George Kruis, in particular, seemed to be caught off guard which was surprising given that he is fresh after a long injury-enforced season and had enjoyed a good tour to that point.

The encouraging thing is, having been accused of being dull and boring to that point, the tourists created several line breaks and genuine try-scoring chances but fluffed their lines all too often. Sadly, that has been a recurring theme on this tour and the Lions must make their hosts work harder in defence to stop those opportunities to register points.

The worry is that New Zealand, with a handy warm-up against Samoa and a far more intense and battle hardening experience against the Lions than they encountered at any stage in last season’s Rugby Championship, are likely to be even more cohesive and punishing in Wellington.

When you consider that their outstanding captain Kieran Read had only played four games in seven months, the last of those six weeks earlier, his impact at Eden Park was nothing short of sensational.

Every tackle was thunderous, every carry menacing and the deft sleight of hand shown off the base of a wheeling scrum to set up that crucial try of Reiki Ioane, highlighted immense skill levels for such a big man.

That has always been part of his game.

Wait until he starts delivering his trademark offloads.

The worrying thing is that, with Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty both crocked and off the field eight minutes before the break, this New Zealand back line never achieved anything near their potential attacking best. They will get better.

The fact that Liam Williams and Elliot Daly both played their way into the side for the first test on the back of their excellent showing against the Chiefs only five days earlier will have served as an incentive for a number of players on display last night to do likewise.

What transpired was a quite incredible game where the Lions undid some outstanding work after an excellent first half display.

To surrendering a 14-point lead during a crucial 10-minute period after the break when Iain Henderson was correctly dispatched to the sin bin for a tip tackle will really disappoint.

That tied the scores at 31-31, a result that neither side looked very happy with on the final whistle.

The real pity is that Henderson was having the game of his life, producing a performance that will have forced the Lions management to sit up and take notice.

That fact that Courtney Lawes was the one to be withdrawn early in the second half would suggest, however, that he might yet be the one to force his way into the test squad for Saturday.

The other major talking point was the fact that, once again, apart from Finn Russell who was called upon to cover for Dan Biggar when he required a head injury assessment, Gatland failed to introduce any of those controversial auxiliary replacements despite the fact that several of his forwards were clearly out on their feet over a frantic closing 10 minutes.

The reluctance to introduce fresh legs certainly contributed to the final result and, when the post mortems are carried out at the end of this tour, may well prove another stick to beat Gatland with.

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