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

Phil Pask pictured at the Waikato Stadium ahead of the Lions clash with the Chiefs
Phil Pask pictured at the Waikato Stadium ahead of the Lions clash with the Chiefs

This is the fourth 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 and really starts in earnest on Saturday morning when they play the first Test against the All Blacks (ko 8.35am)

On Saturday we were back in the North Island of New Zealand and in Rotorua, the home town of Saints players Dylan Hartley and Teimana Harrison.

This is the ‘flat city’ built on what apparently is some of the world’s thinnest crust - creating the area’s main geological features, including a landscape of bubbling mud pools, thermal pools and geysers, the largest being the 30m-tall Pohutu Geyser, which erupts many times daily.

This does come with a minor setback – a pungent smell of sulphur which gives the city a reputation of being smelly, however after a couple of hours you get used to it.

Rotorua is not only renowned for its geothermal activity but also for its Maori culture.

The Māori All Blacks, previously called the New Zealand Māori, are an historic team dating back to 1888, the same year as the Lions. A prerequisite for playing in this team is that the player has Māori whakapapa – heritage or genealogy. They were the first team to wear the All Black jersey.

We trained just next to the Rotorua International Stadium. It is quite a spectacular venue as it is cut out of the landscape as a natural amphitheatre.

When it is full of people it creates a fantastic atmosphere to play in, and the pre-match Maori challenge, the team’s Haka, the rain and mist all added to the crowd’s expectation.

Unfortunately, a couple of players, including Owen Farrell and Ross Moriarty, were not available for selection due to niggles. However, this provided the opportunity for other players to show their worth, with Jonny Sexton and Dan Bigger putting in good performances.

The Lions really squeezed the Maori All Blacks so much that they had little territory or possession, and when they had the ball they were pretty much smothered by the Lions’ collective defence.

I was back up with the coaches for this game as ‘spotter’, and watching the game from a different perspective.

It’s not one I really enjoy as I love being pitchside where you can hear and ‘feel’ the contact, but one I am now beginning to appreciate.

The coaches can detach themselves and get a full appreciation of how the game is running – space for attack, pace, defence stems etc – without getting too emotive.

The wet conditions did not lend itself to a wide handling game, which did not allow George North to show his power and pace in attack, and there was plenty of high-ball kick and chase from the half-backs.

The ball carry into contact was much better and strong with good ruck clearouts providing quicker, better quality ball to work with and it was another significant step forward for this squad and the Test team’s development. Just as well as we are now five games down with the first Test just days away!

I am writing this sat on the bus as we travel to Hamilton to play the Chiefs. This is a major stage in the tour and this game a key marker of how we are doing. The attitude and determination shown by this midweek team can set the tone and inspire the whole playing squad leading up to the first Test.

They have to remain focused even if they think own chances of making the Test side are getting less. This is the beauty of being part of the Lions – strength in unity!

Off to Hamilton

I am writing this sat on the bus on way to Auckland straight after Chiefs game in Hamilton which can only be described a monumental effort by the boys.

No tries conceded and some fantastic running tries, the best finished off by Jack Nowell. It’s now six games down, four won and two lost, but most significantly two wins in a row with massive strides in performance made.

There is some momentum going into the first Test!

Ahead of the Chiefs game in Hamilton, we were training at Willoughby Park next to the main stadium, FMG Stadium Waikato, on a pitch basically built for us last year as part of the tour agreement.

It is a lovely surface and a pleasure to train on.

It is also home for Hamilton Old Boys Rugby club and former Saints players Martin Steffert and Bruce Reihana. It was great to see a photo of Bruce on their Waikato ‘All Blacks Hall of Fame’ board as you enter the pitch at the main stadium.

It is also Warren Gatland’s home town and he was a Waikato player when he was an All Black – he is particularly keen to win here!

We also had six extra players join us this week, four from the Wales tour and two Scots fresh from beating Australia.

It has caused a few raised eyebrows but the main reason Gats has done this is to restrict the number of players who potentially may have to ‘double up’ during the Test weeks – that is either play or sit on the bench midweek to make up the team numbers and then potentially have a part in the weekend’s Test games. I am sure you will all have your own opinion of this!

Against the Chiefs it was a fantastic atmosphere.

There was a near-perfect pitch and a massive influx of Lions supporters, looking splendid in their red shirts, saw our best performance yet.

The Chiefs are no mugs but we not only denied them a try but scored several of our own – one literally a handling effort from one end of the field to the other.

This midweek team has given the whole Lions party a massive lift leading into Saturday first Test.

Several players have given their selection chances a massive boost. Courtney Lawes was at his destructive and ball carrying best despite a clash of heads with Joe Marler.

We took Courtney off for a HIA (head injury assessment) with the independent match doctors which he passed with flying colours before returning to the fray.

Joe didn’t come off so well as he now has a two-inch gash on his head, in parallel with his Mohican.

It was a nightmare to tape up on the pitch and it was a ridiculous bit of taping by the time I had finished, but he did keep his sense of humour and he wasn’t going to leave the game!

The doc put eight staples into his scalp to fix it after the game.

The defensive performance was excellent leaving the Chiefs very little space to work in and panicking them into unforced errors.

At last we started to show a little more intent and execution in attack. Definite improvements in running lines, support and offloads resulted in some really good tries and had the execution been a little better we would have had a couple more.

First Test

So, the first Test is on Saturday and the team was due to be announced on Wednesday night.

The players who are new to the tour are in for a shock when they try to wander around the Viaduct, harbourside, in Auckland tomorrow as they will not be prepared for the influx of Lions supporters that will have arrived this week. Up to 25,000 of them all eagerly anticipating the game and eating, drinking and partying hard!

The game itself will come with no surprises. It will be harder and faster than possibly any game 
they have played, and will not be won or lost until the final whistle is blown.

NZ are not the best team in the world for no reason –give them half a chance, let your foot of the throttle for one moment, lose concentration for just a few seconds and they will capitalise.

Therefore, we must suffocate them in defence, dominate set piece, compete at the breakdown, be alert to any counter attack – but importantly must attack them with pace and go for scores. Never sit back against the All Blacks.

There it is then.

Preparation time is over, lessons learned, team building almost complete - now for the real thing!

Pasky