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The Kiwis' laughable criticism early on has only added fuel to the tourists' fire

 

By Alan Quinlan

Touring New Zealand is the ultimate test for any player. While the physical challenge in going up against the best team in the world is difficult enough, coping mentally is just as important if you are going to be successful.

I know from my own experience how pressurised the environment is over there. You can't escape rugby. It means everything to the Kiwis and it's only really until you travel the country that you fully understand that.

Every school you drive past, if you're on your way to training, the pitches are filled with people, young and old, playing rugby.

I read a survey before the tour began and 78% of the New Zealand public couldn't name a single Lions player, a week out from the opening game. They are so obsessed with their own game that they forget other teams exist.

A tour like this can often feel a bit claustrophobic but it is the type of challenge that Peter O'Mahony summed up last week when he said that Lions players are above international level.

Players get selected for the tour with the expectation that they will be able to cope with that added pressure. The Kiwis are nice people but make no mistake about it, there is an impression that you dare not even consider beating the All Blacks. It's not up for debate.

I remember going there with Ireland on a couple of tours and that was the case anywhere we went in public.

We all grew up watching the All Blacks. They have earned the right to have that arrogant streak but when you sit back and realise no one is giving you a chance, it has to motivate you.

It's not always intentional but it can be disrespectful. The Kiwi press have been doing their best to upset Warren Gatland and for me, their criticism is pure stupidity.

I couldn't believe the amount of stick they came in for after the first two games. It was very unfair, in my opinion. It was always going to take time to gel and even though Saturday's performance was far from flawless, there were plenty of signs to suggest they are going in the right direction.

When they lost to the Blues last week, the so-called 'worst' of the Kiwi Super Rugby sides, they weren't an awful team and now after beating the Crusaders, they haven't become world-beaters overnight.

They are somewhere in between and everyone in the squad - coaches and players - will know that.

No one was willing to give them any sort of a break but that comes with the territory of playing in New Zealand.

It is all about the three Tests. We will judge the Lions then.

Gatland knew before he left that there would be plenty of mind games between Steve Hansen and the media. He showed a bit of emotion when he reacted to the question about 'Warrenball', and I don't think there is a huge amount wrong with that.

You can't understate the importance of Saturday's win over the Crusaders. The challenge now is to carry that momentum into the Highlanders game tomorrow.

There are still plenty of Test places up for grabs, most notably in the back three and the back row. This is the week when we will see the midweek and Test team beginning to take shape.

I fully expect Saturday's game against the Maori All Blacks to be close enough to the Test team but the Highlanders clash is crucial for certain guys to put their hand up.

Jared Payne was a surprise inclusion in the initial squad because he hadn't played a lot of rugby this season but people know how good he is.

He's a real attacking threat in the wider channels and anyone that plays with him always speaks about how good a communicator he is. He gets the nod for full back and a good performance tomorrow will put him right in the frame to start the first Test.

Anthony Watson has impressed me the most in that position and he only ended up there on Saturday because of the injury to Stuart Hogg.

It was a good weekend for the Irish. O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien played their way into contention to start against the All Blacks. Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray were very impressive too.

We know that O'Mahony is a major threat at the lineout but it was noticeable how much he was talking to those around him. He looked totally at home in that environment.

O'Brien looks in great shape and was full of energy, which is a fair achievement given that he hadn't played since April 1. He's the type of guy who doesn't shirk a challenge and when you are in the dressing room preparing to play the world champions, O'Brien is someone you would want going into battle alongside you.

The main event is still to come but after Saturday's win over the Crusaders, the Lions have got their tour firmly back on track.

Belfast Telegraph

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