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Lions coming to terms with way of life in New Zealand

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster, Ireland and Lions legend Willie John McBride has played rugby from one corner of the world to the other, so when the 77-year-old told the Belfast Telegraph this week that nothing compares to the unique welcome you receive in New Zealand, he was speaking from plenty of past experience.

The 2017 Lions have been in the home of the back-to-back World champions for 10 days now, and have already got their own taste of the added scrutiny that comes when taking the field in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

While we have yet to reach the fever pitch of 2005 and the Brian O'Driscoll spear tackle affair - although that was given an airing this week when a prominent New Zealand columnist wrote of Wednesday's loss, "the Blues picked (the Lions) up, held them in the air and speared the body into the ground. This was Tana Umaga's night of redemption" - there have already been mind games that would make Sir Alex Ferguson in his pomp smile wryly in appreciation.

After an unimpressive opening, the local media were quick to brand the tourists "on the brink of collapse" with their national coach soon following suit with a couple of verbal grenades of his own.

Always quick with a quote, Steve Hansen first opined that Warren Gatland was "struggling" with his press conference when the man who led the Lions to victory in 2013 said that there wouldn't be a pronounced step up to the All Blacks from their club sides, this after Gatland already had a few testy exchanges with media regarding the now infamous 'Warrenball' jibe.

And things were taken a step further when Hansen said he didn't think the Lions knew what they were doing.

"I don't think they do," he said when asked if he had a growing understanding of the Lions' aims.

"It's hard for us, we find it hard moulding the five different franchise players, but they've got four countries, and some of the countries don't like each other.

"It's difficult for them coming here on a Wednesday and playing on a Saturday. That's an impossible task, it doesn't matter who you are and I don't know why they decided to do that… maybe they could've got here a little bit earlier.

"I don't know whether that's because commercialism took over from high performance, you'd have to ask them. If it is, then they should have argued more for high performance."

Only in New Zealand would an opposing coach feel such confidence that he'd air the opinion that the opposition had hamstrung themselves before the Test series has even started.

The differing levels of scrutiny on a Lions tour, and one in New Zealand no less, were on display on Wednesday when young English star Maro Itoje was criticised for celebrating too exuberantly after winning a scrum he thought would safeguard a win.

With plenty noting the reaction on social media, including former Ulster coach Matt Williams and prop John Afoa, hooker Jamie George had to leap to the defence of his Saracens' team-mate.

"He just cares about the team a huge amount and when he reacts like that, it lifts everyone else around him," he said. "I think you look at a lot of the English guys I've played with, guys at Saracens, we're very similar in that respect.

"We care for the jersey, we care for the people around us, we care for our families. Those are the people we're representing. Maro is a very proud person, and that's probably the reason he reacted the way he did and I don't see any issue."

It was a tiny moment that likely had no bearing on the outcome, but still one that was debated ad nauseum and an example of how suffocating such an environment can be, especially when things aren't going your way on the field.

When fly-half Owen Farrell was asked about the need for mental strength in such circumstances, his focus was on the quality of the team they will face in the first Test just two weeks from now.

"You have to be mentally strong because of the standard of the opposition," he said. "We've got to have our wits, we've got to be in the game."

One thing, however, is for sure - more losses before that Test series begins, and the local press corps will be having a field day.

Belfast Telegraph

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