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Thursday 23 November 2017

Lions must sink or swim in titanic test

Kiwis have had it all their own way

New Zealand prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi works out during an All Blacks gym session in Wellington. Pic: Brett Phibbs/New Zealand Herald via AP
New Zealand prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi works out during an All Blacks gym session in Wellington. Pic: Brett Phibbs/New Zealand Herald via AP

New Zealand have had almost everything their own way everywhere, except on the field of play.

The first Test can provide moments that confirmed the Lions are capable of hurting the world champions.

For instance, the Lions created more try-scoring chances, even though they lost the count three-to-two.

Their lineout was dominant and they were not cut open by the All Blacks at will from first-phase possession.

This had a lot to do with New Zealand's tactical decision to play it hard, fast and close-in, a change of plan forced by the impressive Lions defence.

The appallingly one-sided nature of the media coverage has heaped pressure on to the Lions, while they are smack bang in the middle of an insane tour schedule.

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There are also the commercial engagements, an unwanted distraction, that are central to the best traditions of the tour.

They have had to cope with the constant travelling and the steady coming together of players from four nations in what is a Test series no one believes they can win.

During all of that, the All Blacks have been able to prepare in perfect isolation, sheltering from the media storm, despite the fact their coach Steve Hansen feels free to frequently engage in controversies which have been blown out of all proportion.

The simple fact Hansen would take time out to phone into a radio station to react to Warren Gatland's concern for Conor Murray's safety is a reflection on how much of the load is carried by his assistants Wayne Smith and Ian Foster.

Quite simply, the man must have a lot of time on his hands.

The constant back and forth between Hansen and Gatland certainly should ensure that all the 46 players involved in Wellington will be highly motivated and ready to rumble at 'The Cake Tin.'

"This is going to be a Titanic Test match, isn't it?" said Foster.

"We're 1-0 up, but we know there's going to be a very desperate team down the road.

"If we're not desperate - and match that, and better that - it's going to be a hard night for us.

"This whole week's about us preparing and playing as well as we can," said Foster.

"When there's a lot at stake often there's lots of noise around games and people try and chuck things at you from different sides. But, at the end of the day, it doesn't change a thing. We've got a pure rugby team to play on Saturday."

The Lions were not the only ones to feel the burn from the All Blacks intensity and tempo in the first Test.

"I spoke to an official and he said it was a big step up for him," said Gatland.

"That's the ability of the All Blacks, to take Test match rugby to another level.

"Our guys will have learned a lot from the experience.

"The players have been incredibly focused about what a challenge it is to play the All Blacks here on Saturday night.

"The emotion and physicality the All Blacks brought on Saturday, we have to match that."

Or else, the Lions will be on the end of a hiding.

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