Hard to believe that, given the incessant pre-tour hype that started out months in advance, this Lions tour has already passed the halfway point, with six games played.
While there will be disappointment with the fact that the Lions were on the end of two defeats in their opening four games, significant progress has been made since, and everything is now geared towards the first test next Saturday.
We have now entered the most crucial week of the entire Tour. The players selected to start against the Chiefs yesterday will have appreciated at that stage that, barring injury, they will not feature in Saturday’s match day squad.
While dealing with the disappointment of that, they need to quickly grasp the fact that with two tests to go and the inevitability that changes will be required for one reason or another, it is vital that they make the management team stand up and take notice of them from both an attitude and performance perspective.
Tomorrow represents another key milestone on tour with confirmation of that test squad, firstly to the players and then the public at large. Some who may have expected to find themselves starting against New Zealand will be confined to bench action while others will be absolutely thrilled to be handed that cherished starting test jersey.
It becomes absolutely crucial then that those outside the 23 do everything in their power to make the key training sessions in the build up to Saturday evening’s kickoff as relevant and constructive as possible.
Those selected carry a huge burden of responsibility for the entire party as they negotiate their way through the most important 80 minutes of the tour to that point. Win the opening test, and everyone is on a high with the tour alive and, at worst, a series to play for right up until the final game.
In total, the Lions have played 38 tests on New Zealand soil and have only six wins and three draws to show for some almighty effort. That in itself shows the enormity of the challenge facing Warren Gatland’s men.
The fact that the opening test is being played in Eden Park presents an even bigger obstacle, given that New Zealand remain unbeaten there in 37 successive internationals since the French beat them 23-20 on July 3, 1994.
Then again, that amazing record has to go at some stage.
While there is big pressure on the Lions to perform, it is even greater on the All Blacks given that the vast majority of their supporters in this rugby mad country not only expect their boys to win the series, they see it as their right.
Despite the fact that a sizeable contingent of the current New Zealand squad have a pair of World Cup medals safely tucked away in their trophy cabinet, lose a test series to the Lions and an indelible stain will attach to their careers for all time.
The last test game I saw live at Eden Park was the 2011 World Cup final when the intoxicating pressure that hung over the All Blacks became so unbearable, they almost blew it. In many respects, France should have won that game, and it showed that even the best team in the world can be overcome by its inner demons.
The thing with New Zealand is, they expect to win. It is important therefore that the Lions take them out of their comfort zone, as Ireland did last November in Chicago. Circumstances, however, are different.
The All Blacks were not quite as tuned in as they needed to be in that game, on an end of season contest set up by their sponsors.
They were also without their outstanding second row pairing of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Watching Retallick display his incredible array of skills against Samoa last Friday night was fascinating. Beauden Barrett apart, he is New Zealand’s most important player.
It is vital therefore that the Lions do everything in their power to minimise the impact of the 6’8” lock. The fact that four of the Lions front five that featured against the Maori All Blacks play week in, week out with Saracens added massively to the sense of cohesion and understanding in that game with Leinster powerhouse Tadhg Furlong adding even more bite and scrummaging nous to the unit at tight head. As a consequence of that performance, Gatland has a big decision to make in the second row as to who partners the impressive George Kruis after Maro Itoge threw down the gauntlet to the more experienced Alun Wyn Jones.
A potential complication here is the issue of captaincy as it appears that Sam Warburton could become the first Lions tour captain since Mike Campbell-Lamerton in 1966 to fail to make the team on a selection call.
Does Gatland stick with Peter O’Mahony, after the impressive job he made of carrying that responsibility last weekend, or does he reduce the pressure on the Cork man, on what surely will be his Lions test debut, by opting for the player who led the tourists to a series win over Australia in the Lions most recent test outing four years ago?
On the basis of the magnificent shift Itoje put in against the Maori, it looks like he has done enough to take what, at the outset of the tour, looked like a nailed on position for Alun Wyn Jones.
The fact that O’Mahony has created such a positive impact, on and off the field, with his natural leadership style looks like securing him the captaincy.
What an incredible achievement that would be.
It proved an additional bonus that those likely to be outside that test squad for the weekend also did their bit by delivering what was an outstanding performance against the Chiefs in Hamilton last night.
That will only serve to lift confidence right across the board.
In many respects, this was the most complete performance of the tour to date with the, now customary, set piece dominance matched in the second half with some excellent running and support play.
One such score, which started after turning over Chiefs line out possession five metres from their own line resulted in a try at the opposite end for Lions winger Jack Nowell. The interplay between backs and forwards was a joy to behold.
Interestingly, perhaps on the back of the criticism attached to drafting in six players for bench duty based purely on their proximity to the Lions, only one, Scotland’s Allan Dell, featured and that was out of necessity to cover the scrum after loose head prop Joe Marler was yellow carded.
To become a Lion, you must feature on the field of play. By not introducing any of the other five as a substitute, they have not, as yet, achieved Lions status.
Overall then it has been an excellent few days for the tourists, with two really positive showings from two completely different teams.
That has forced the hosts to sit back and take notice. Perhaps this test series will not be as straightforward as the entire population of New Zealand seemed to think only a week ago, after the Lions’ disappointing loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin. No harm in that.
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