DONAL LENIHAN: Next seven days vital for Lions as selections for first test will be nailed down or squandered

With four games played this Lions squad now fully appreciate the severity of the task ahead of them in the test series, writes Donal Lenihan.

It’s only 16 years since my last involvement on a Lions tour, the second of the professional era, but so much has changed since.

By the time we reached the last test in 2001, with the series tied at 1-1 against the world champions and Bledisloe Cup holders Australia in Sydney, 250 press and 23 television crews attended the final press conference.

The beast that was becoming the Lions was starting to grow out of control. As manager, with just a few support staff and one beleaguered press officer, it was hard to contain. With lessons learned, Clive Woodward took a different approach four years later for the tour to New Zealand but a bloated squad and a large coaching team never really gelled and struggled to cope.

As a consequence of all this and the ever-growing commercial opportunities that attach to a Lions tour, a massive support staff now run things parallel to the rugby management side, but not always in unison. The amount of daily tweets and positive spin emanating from the camp is difficult to keep up with.

As a former player, the thing that caught my attention on the tour to Australia four years ago was the fact every new Lion had a specific number embroidered on his shirt, his unique place in Lions history cemented in time. Early on tour, you see a tweet from the Lions confirming the latest entry - ‘powerful Irish prop Jack McGrath joined the list as Lion #827 today’.

Conducting some promotional work around the launch of my autobiography last September, I bumped into one of the Lions support staff in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. She wondered if I was attending a reunion of the 1986 Lions taking place in London the following day. I told her that, unfortunately, due to commitments surrounding the book, I was unable to attend.

In conversation about the forthcoming tour to New Zealand, my mind flashed back to 2013 and I quizzed her about those Lions numbers. I suggested that, given all the marketing spin surrounding the Lions these days, it might be a good idea to send a letter to all living Lions to let us know our unique number. I didn’t realise it at the time but, if you accessed the official Lions website, you could find it.

Within a few hours, I received a text. ‘Hi Donal, just to let you know, you are Lion number #598.’ Thirty three years after becoming a Lion, that text meant something to me. As a result every time I see them reference a Lions debutant on this tour — Peter O’Mahony became Lion number #833 last Wednesday in Auckland — that resonates with me.

The Cork man was the last of the new Lions to feature on this tour when he entered the fray off the bench against the Blues. That means only 833 players have worn the famous red shirt since Jack Anderton from Salford rugby club in England was assigned #1, having appeared in the first ever tour game back in 1888. Most rugby playing nations now follows suit, except, for some reason, Ireland. It would be a nice tradition to follow, something the IRFU should pursue.

It is far too early to examine where this current tour will sit in the history of Lions rugby but after a predictably slow start in the opening two games, played with undue haste after the players had barely stepped off the plane, it is already cast in stone a credible performance in the upcoming test series is required to feature in a positive light. Then again, that is the way it has always been.

It is a horrendously demanding schedule, something that Warren Gatland acknowledged over a year ago when he mused, prior to speculation about his announcement as head coach, he might be better off without it. I am sure, after the premature brickbats cast his way by some of the more caustic elements of the New Zealand media, that he had cause to wonder about his plight after only a week back on his native soil.

With four games played, three against Super Rugby franchises, this Lions squad now fully appreciate the severity of the task ahead of them in the test series. The fact that the Blues, who currently sit bottom of the New Zealand Super Rugby conference, defeated the tourists last week immediately put the pressure on those sitting above them — Canterbury Crusaders, Otago Highlanders, Wellington Hurricanes and Waikato Chiefs — to do likewise.

Next seven days vital for Lions as selections for first test will be nailed down or squandered

In some respects, that pressure of expectation showed on a previously unbeaten Crusaders side last Saturday when the Lions were magnificent, playing to their strengths, in completely shutting down the famed attacking prowess of the young Crusaders back line. This was the strongest starting combination Gatland had selected to that point and a number of players threw down a marker for the test series (see attached graphic). Of even greater importance was the impressive set piece dominance shown by the tourists against an entire All Black front five, unit. That will set New Zealand coach Steve Hansen thinking.

More than any other, Lions tours tend to take on a life of themselves and the unfortunate injuries to Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Davies that unexpectedly pitched Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell together could yet become the most significant moment of the tour.

Sexton’s recent wobbly form almost certainly had Gatland settling on Farrell as the test No 10 but with Sexton grabbing his opportunity when introduced early off the bench on Saturday, working impressively in tandem with Farrell, Gatland has a big decision to make in advance of Saturday’s game against the Maori All Blacks. One week out from the opening test, the side picked for that game will tell us a lot.

Another to gain from last Saturday’s injury woes was England’s Anthony Watson, who offered so much in attack, when replacing Hogg at full-back. To beat New Zealand the Lions are going to have to improve their capacity to score tries and Watson could well prove a gutsy decision in that regard. To be fair, Gatland has never proved wanting on that front.

With just a paltry two tries in the opening three games, the Lions had to show more attacking intent against the Highlanders yesterday given the game was played on an immaculate surface at the brilliantly atmospheric, indoor arena at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin where Ireland beat Italy at the 2011 World Cup in the aptly nicknamed Green House.

It didn’t prove quite as accommodating for the Lions, even if they did manage to score three tries, in a game they really should have won. Leading by nine points early in the second-half, the tourists should have had the capacity to close this one out with Farrell missing a very kickable penalty at a vital stage to go five ahead.

If you think that Munster have a proud record against touring sides, that was the Otago region’s fifth win over the Lions in eight contests.

Regardless, the squad will just have to put the head down, knowing the Maoris will hit them with everything in a sold out Rotorua on Saturday, a game I’m looking forward to seeing in the flesh. That is the challenge on this tour.

There is always an even bigger challenge waiting around the next corner. You barely have time to breath.

After this defeat there will be more pressure on Saturday’s combination to make another big statement in advance of the opening test. The next seven days will prove vital for the entire squad as selections for first test will either be nailed down or squandered.

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