This is the first in a series of weekly columns from former Saints player Phil Pask, who is a physio and part of the medical team on tour with the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand... the Lions tour starts on Saturday morning when they play New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei (ko 8.35am)
I am sat on the plane flying to New Zealand to kick off the British and Irish Lions Tour 2017.
This must be one of the greatest challenges left in sport – 10 games in six weeks; at the end of a very long season, with a ‘brand new team’ against the best rugby side in the world.
And it’s all in their back garden.
It sounds tough, it is tough, but what a challenge!
This is a unique experience, and in many ways a good ‘old fashioned’ tour.
We will have been away for eight weeks by the time of the third and final Test, and will have had time to actually absorb a bit of the NZ culture, get out and about and have a few socials, but also develop as a strong team.
This tour has been in the planning since the day Lions CEO John Feehan stepped off the plane back in Dublin following the momentous tour to Australia in 2013.
The success of that tour has added impetus to the Lions and this group of management and players.
Now the domestic season has concluded, we can all hardly wait to get going and there are many familiar faces from previous tours and lots of new ones to take us on.
On the most recent tour to New Zealand back in 2005, my first, results did not go the way we planned and we were beaten comprehensively by a very good All Blacks side.
But apart from the final two weeks and the Test matches I really enjoyed the tour – how could you not?
There were 25,000 to 30,000 British supporters following the team all around the country, and there was the genuine delight of the New Zealanders to have us all there.
Having spoken to some of our old Saints players out in New Zealand, Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, Andy Blowers and John Leslie to name a few, anticipation is at fever pitch this year.
That’s not only among the rugby public, but also the All Black players themselves.
They may only get one chance in a career to measure up to the Lions and all that comes with a Test series victory.
The Lions team starts with nothing, and at the end of the tour there is the memories created that will last a lifetime, and the fact they could have also created a bit of sporting history.
A Lions tour means literally starting with a blank sheet and buying everything from couches to massage cream or from tape to cases to carry all the kit in.
We turn up at the hotel and everything we ordered is there waiting for us in boxes. Amazing!
Exciting and demanding, exhilarating and exhausting, enjoyable and stressful, all at the same time.
It is not a place for the faint hearted, player, coach or physio!
The process began on ‘messy Monday’, on May 8 as the freshly named squad meet up for a day at Syon Park Hotel in London.
Here the players and staff met each other for the first time were suited and booted, with the whole tour itinerary, expectations and demands run through.
It is organised chaos, but there are a lot of excited people by the end of the day.
The medical team is made up mainly from those on the previous Lions Tour, with Irish Doc, Eanna Falvey, a 6’ 3” ex-rugby player and boxer of note, and a good old boy to have around leading the department.
The other physios are Bob Stewart, who works with me at England, and Prav Methema from the Welsh team .
Between us we have completed 11 Lions Tours which gives us a huge amount of experience and ability to cope with what is to come.
We are a team within a team and are very comfortable in each other’s company, and this allows us to set up a really effective treatment and rehab facility
The first week of training was held at the Vale Hotel Complex near Cardiff, the training headquarters of Welsh Rugby.
The Vale hotel is a fabulous place housing both the Welsh rugby and football training facilities within its grounds.
There is a massive indoor area the size of a football pitch, and brilliant training facilities.
The Welsh and England fitness guys, and Bobby Stridgeon and Phil Morrow from Saracens, have relished putting the boys through their paces.
This has included early morning ‘Wattbike’ sessions in their large fixed altitude chamber, followed by a blast in the cryotherapy chamber for recovery.
Although there were only 14 players in camp, the foundations of the game plan were put in place.
It’s also here that we began our choir practice!
It is traditional in NZ Maori Culture to sing a song after an address or speech.
We are to follow this tradition by singing our own songs in response, and we have one song from each country.
There is Jerusalem for England, Highland Cathedral for Scotland, Calan Lan for Wales and Fields of Athenry for Ireland – we are getting better!
I was also given a day off this week to join my wife Janice to visit Buckingham Palace for a Garden Party we were invited too.
It was a very proud moment for me and the family, and rest assured, Queen Elizabeth is now fully briefed on our intent over the next few weeks!
The Royal Family are definitely part of our wider rugby family.
The second week of training saw us move ‘lock stock and barrel’ to Carton House in County Kildare.
This is the Irish training facility located at a hotel in substantial grounds of an old country estate.
For once it didn’t actually rain on us in Ireland and we were able to get some useful training done.
The players were obviously a little nervous in the presence of not only a new group of top coaches, but also their peer group – and ultimately their opposition for a Test place.
They need not have worried though as after a few days together It was a delight to see how well everyone was getting along.
We then moved back to London’s Kensington Garden Hotel for the farewell dinner at the Roundhouse.
Here the last few players joined the squad, including Saints pair George North and Courtney Lawes after their tremendous win against Stade on Friday evening.
Rarely have I experienced such a great atmosphere at Franklin’s Gardens.
Let’s hope this is a springboard for next season.
This is pretty much the calm before the storm, as although we have been together now for a while the tour doesn’t properly kick off until the first game, which is on Saturday.
This will be a strange one against a Provisional Union side, as you have no idea how they will play.
The Lions team was picked last week and I can report is looking pretty impressive.
So, what’s he plan as I sit here before the first game?
Simple - to win every game including the Test Series and in the process make Lions history!
The medicals are completed, Maro Itoje, the youngest player, can pick up ‘Bill The Lion’, and off we go!
It’s going to be an amazing couple of months!
A final thought...
Rugby players, supporters and people involved in our game show again and again the qualities reflected in our game of team-work, respect enthusiasm, enjoyment and discipline.
Exemplified within the core principles of Lions tours.
At times when we hear of players and family going through difficult times, we pull together and offer as much support as we can.
We just want to let Tom Youngs and his wife Tiff we are all thinking of them, Ben and the family, and that we are all here for them - Tigers, Saints, England and Lions!
Phil Pask is a formere Saints player and physiotherapist, and is the phyiso for the England and British & Irish Lions. He was senior physio on the 2005, 2009 and 2013 Lions tours. Phil is a partner at Witty, Pask & Buckingham Chartered Physiotherapists, based on Billing Road in Northampton