For years the All Blacks have reigned supreme thanks to their never say die mental strength and the supreme stamina to back it past the 80th minute. Yet the man who keeps the Lions in the peak of physical fitness believes the tourists can match those attributes as their series goes down to the wire at Eden Park on Saturday.
The Lions’ head of strength and conditioning Paul Stridgeon is confident Warren Gatland’s players can time their run to the final game of an extremely long campaign to perfection with a bench every bit as strong as New Zealand can regularly deploy and which is usually enough to overpower national Test sides.
While blending players from four nations at short notice and asking them to compete with the fluency of a side that has trained and played together for many years has its pitfalls in terms of fluency and gameplan, from a physical performance point of view the combined strength of the Lions gives Stridgeon an embarrassment of riches, not least the chance to work with a forward whose athleticism marks him out as “a machine”.
Second row Maro Itoje has been hailed from all quarters as a player with the brightest of futures, let alone the impact he could have on this Saturday’s third and final Test in Auckland. Supporters in Wellington during the Lions’ second Test victory gave the 22-year-old Saracens and England star’s name the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” treatment, coaches are marvelling at his potential and team-mates praise his effectiveness around the park.
As for Stridgeon, the Englishman said of Itoje yesterday: “He’s a machine for us, he’s been brilliant. Works hard, big, physical, very diligent, put a lot of extra work in there.
“We felt he could have played another 10 to 15 minutes. He’s a very powerful, explosive natural athlete.” here are clearly areas of his game for Itoje to improve, not least his tendency to concede penalties. Not that supporters will care but some of Itoje’s media interactions on this tour have been on the snippy side but for those who work alongside him, the Londoner has everything it takes to be a success on the field.
“His biggest quality is humility and how humble he is and how he is continually striving to get better,” scrum coach Graham Rowntree. “He was calling the lineout (in the second Test).
“He is still a young man. The deciding Test and he is in there calling the lineout on top of everything else he is doing in the game. You can’t deny his game impact, his physicality. I thought he brought all that (in Wellington). I like his composure. And he is continually striving to get better, asking everyone, ‘How can I get better?’ “He will go a long way.” Hooker Jamie George, like his Saracens and England pack-mate a Lions Test debutant on this New Zealand tour gave Itoje a high grade when asked to award a mark out of 10 for his impact as a starter at Westpac Stadium last Saturday.
“Nine or 10,” George said. “He was exceptional. He took himself to a place I’ve never seen before. Right on the edge. He is always very physical.
“The way he ran the lineout — it was the toughest conditions I’ve ever thrown into, in terms of the wind and the rain — it was very difficult and we lost a couple early. But he showed real maturity and led that pack around. It was brilliant to witness and be a part of.” For those wondering if Itoje and the Lions have enough left in the tank to go toe to toe one last time with an All Blacks side just hitting its stride at the start of their season, Stridgeon is no doubt the players in his charge are capable of matching their foes in Auckland this weekend and will be all the better for stepping off the treadmill over the last two days with some downtime away from it all in the ski and adventure resort of Queenstown.
“Because they play tough Test matches all the time you’re going to get better at decision-making at the end of games, playing under fatigue, getting back into games, and also when they play other countries, because of their strength in depth, when they unload their bench on 50 or 60 minutes their bench is generally stronger than another team.
“I think that’s where we can possibly match them because we’ll have a strong bench as well and that with this team and group of players I would say we can match them over that last 20.
“We know that they’ve been on this season 11 months, some of the players. So we always had this week planned. “We think we can negate the effects of all the travel and the intensity of the games and the hard season they’ve had back home by having this week (in Queenstown Sunday to Wednesday) as we’ve had it.
“We’ve planned it this way all along and we’ve no concerns individually.”
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