Whoever organised the accommodation arrangements for the British & Irish Lions last week at Carton House must have had a chuckle when they made Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar room-mates.
Even Wales out-half Biggar saw the funny side as the number 10s unpacked having both been losing PRO12 semi-finalists that weekend.
Sexton’s Leinster and Biggar’s Ospreys were in camp earlier than they had hoped for alongside fellow fly-half Owen Farrell, who had lost with Saracens in their Aviva Premiership semi-final at Exeter.
While all would have rather been with their clubs battling for silverware, joining up with the Lions for an extra week’s tour preparation ahead of yesterday’s departure for New Zealand came a very close second.
“You’d have been a bit more battle-hardened if you’d played a final,” Biggar said, “but in terms of getting up to speed with the calls and getting to know the majority of the boys, making it easier to interact and to understand what the coaches are after, spend a bit of time on laptops, getting used to the language being used, it’s been a really good week in terms of losing.
“Being a number 10, it’s not an easy position to come into a new environment. You have to make sure you’re up to speed. I was rooming with Johnny Sexton last week and it’s probably been the narkiest room in the hotel, but it was a really good week.”
Having all three playmakers in the squad for an extra week in Kildare was certainly a bonus for head coach Warren Gatland and his staff having only had one half-back available, Scotland scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, for the first week’s training at Vale of Glamorgan.
Biggar, too, was grateful for the extra days together on the training field, even if they are rivals for the starting Test jersey.
“What I have found interesting (with Sexton and Farrell) is the amount you pick up from them, and that goes for other players as well. We have chats after training and talk about tactics. The two have so much knowledge and it is really interesting. Johnny and I have got on really well and after playing so often against him, it is good to be on the same side.
“I am looking forward to challenging him and Owen and being with them gives you a good perspective on 10 play. We are not holding anything back from each other: the greater aim is to win the Test series so if any of us has any knowledge that can help the team win games from small detail, it is important we put it out there.
“We are all confident characters who are not afraid to speak our minds and say what we think. That will suit the team well. We are competing for the same position and we all want to play in that 10 shirt but the most important thing is not the battle for places but we do everything on and off the field and back whoever is playing in all the games because we have the chance to achieve something historic.”
Another strength in the Lions armoury, and one with which they are confident they have a definite advantage over the All Blacks is the quality of goal-kicking in the touring party, not just Biggar, Sexton and Farrell but also full-backs and 2013 tourists Stuart Hogg and Leigh Halfpenny, who was first-choice kicker in the series victory over Australia four years ago.
All five have been getting used to place-kicking with the adidas balls to be used in New Zealand, a change from the Rhino ones used in the Guinness PRO12.
“The balls we will be using are a bit different to the ones in the PRO12 but they are brilliant,” Biggar said. “They travel a little bit further and I would like to have them week in week out. There are a few goal-kickers in the squad and Leigh is still to come (from Toulon) and put more pressure on. Stuart Hogg was winding them up from 60 metres in training and goal-kicking is a strength of ours with the number of kickers.” By the time the Lions touch down in Auckland tonight (Irish time), even the 11 late arrivals from last weekend’s finals at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium will have had some getting to know you time and Biggar, by his own admission a player who keeps himself to himself, has appreciated the extra time together last week.
That was particularly important, he feels, for the fly-halves.
“There is a way you approach players you do not know: on the field, you want your 10 to have a bit of authority and then confidence to push you around the field rather than do it softly-softly, and when it comes to putting your foot down you are not taken as firmly as you would like. You have to find your way in and learn who can take a little bit more, a kick up the backside or something softer, and for the three of us it is about driving standards and leading the team around the pitch whoever is playing. For those of us who aren’t, it is about backing the guy up and helping out as much as we can.
“There are a couple of characters in the squad, Ben Te’o and Kyle Sinckler. They are real good value off the field. Players like that are important when you are away from home for six weeks. Then there are the likes of me who keep themselves to themselves and let the other guys take a bit of banter and stick. We have done a lot on the field this week but also a lot off it with the lads sitting down at dinner tables, no one else from your country on there, and interacting. I made the decision when coming down to breakfast that I did not want to be with players from my club or country because a tour like this is about getting on with guys you did not think you would get on with; you find out they are really good blokes. That is really important and almost as useful as what we’ve done on the field.”
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