ON TOUR WITH THE LIONS: Phil Pask’s New Zealand diary

Courtney Lawes and Phil Pask pictured at the Maori meeting house in Waitangi
Courtney Lawes and Phil Pask pictured at the Maori meeting house in Waitangi
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This is the second 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 continues on Saturday morning when they play Crusaders in Christchurch (ko 8.35am)

What a tough, tough, tough game for the players against the NZ Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei last Saturday.

To play four days after a long haul flight, with a brand new set of players, some of who had not played a real game for three or four weeks was hard enough.

We also had to train the day before to get some shape into the team. The Baa-Baas really had nothing to lose, it was a chance in a lifetime for some of their players.

They ran absolutely everything and they were no mugs!

So it made me laugh when I read in one of the local papers saying ‘is that all you have got?’.

Well it isn’t, and we have a lot more to come as this tour progresses.

It must have been a first to see a father versus son contest during a Lions game as fly-half Bryn Gatland faced the Lions, coached by dad Warren.

Bryn played really well and obviously did not get his dad’s front row genes handed down to him!

The game did show the first glimpses of players putting down their individual markers for Test selection in a few weeks.

The players do realise though that if the team plays well then they will individually play better and we are developing very quickly a new squad ethos.

It is fantastic to see how quickly and how well the British and Irish blend together. We do seem to bring the best out in each other despite all our differences.

We also saw the first glimpses of how immense the Lions support is going to be as the tour progress.

The the coach parks in Whangarei were already full of camper vans filled with Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish rugby fans about to roam the roads of New Zealand.

Straight after the game we got on a bus and travelled 90 minutes further north to Waitangi.

It was here that Captain Cooke first set anchor and stepped foot on what then was known as Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.

In 1840, representatives of Britain and the Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi and the modern New Zealand was born.

We had been invited to face and accept the traditional three challenges from Maori Warriors, 300 of them as it turned out, as we walked some half a mile from the shore up a grassy bank before entering their meeting house for discussion and song, just like it had occurred some 177 years ago.

It is in Maori culture that after every speech the group sing a song, and it is polite and expected that visitors respond in the same manner.

Now this is where all our choir practice paid off.

Ken Owens spoke in Welsh and then we sang Calon Lan (in Welsh), Robbie Henshaw spoke in Gaelic, followed by The Fields of Athenry.

Next up, tour manager and former England international and Lion John Spencer spoke in English, and we sang Jerusalem.

To round things off, Greig Laidlaw spoke a few words and we finished with a rousing rendition of Highland Cathedral.

We did a pretty good job and it went down really well.

It was all in all a very special day and one that the players and myself will always remember.

We then flew back to Auckland on two very small planes before resuming training and preparation for Wednesday’s game against Auckland Blues.

We are training at the QBE stadium just outside Auckland and home to the North Harbour Team.

Saints supporters will remember this as the home club of Saints and All Blacks legend Buck Shelford.

I am really looking forward to catching up with him and reminiscing about the good old days when he was unbeaten All Blacks captain and helped Saints get to our first big cup final at Twickenham, the Pilkington Cup back in 1991 - that now seems a long time ago.

I write this section after we have just finished the medicals for those players who played against Auckland Blues on Tuesday night, and I am having a short breather.

We are obviously all desperately disappointed, although realistic, to have lost the game.

In parts we played really well, had about 50 per cent possession and territory and mostly physical dominance in the set piece and loose play.

However, a couple of errors in decision making kept Blues in the game and after a line break they finished off at tremendous pace with accuracy and skill to score a brilliant try.

Once these Super 14 teams get in behind your defence then you are in trouble, as they are tremendously fast and accurate in their open field play.

We had a chance to ‘catch and drive’ from the last play of the game, but a slight miscommunication at the lineout saw the ball go in a bit before the jumper could react.

A small error. but ultimately a large consequence and that has a little symptomatic of our play in the first two games of the tour.

But remember this is all about building a team, and these matches are part of the process.

We need to be tested, learn from the lessons, change and get better.

The analysts worked into the small hours of the morning looking at where mistakes were made and where we could do better.

This information was relayed to the coaches the following day, and the training sessions will reflect where we need to improve and develop our game.

It was a bit of a different experience for me on Tuesday night as we are rotating the three physios, Bob, Prav and myself, around different roles each game.

In the first game I sat on the bench to help with the replacements.

On Tuesday I sat with the coaches in their box as an ‘injury spotter’.

I have a video feedback with a time delay where I can review any potential injuries, and then send this to the doctor, Eanna, pitch-side via our headsets.

We have now finished screening the players for any new injuries.

The players then had massage and pool based recovery and a bit of a rest day.

We will give updates to Warren Gatland and he can start to think about selection for the next couple of games

Anyway, it’s on to Christchurch to play the Crusaders on Saturday, highlighting that this is a relentless and brutal schedule.

The Lions supporters are now growing in numbers and what a great challenge this is - building the Lions squad into a Test match team to give the All Blacks a real go!

Final thought...

Everybody here was so shocked and saddened to hear and see what went on in London last weekend.

Our thoughts, best wishes and support are offered to all those this has affected.

We can only respond by showing support in the only way we can, by making everyone proud of how the British and Irish lions conduct themselves on and off field of play

On a happier note, it was my wife’s birthday on June 5 - and it’s the 20th birthday I have missed of hers, as I am always a way on tour in June!

Happy birthday, Janice!

Phil Pask is a former 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