ON TOUR WITH THE LIONS: Phil Pask's New Zealand diary
This is the fifth 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 the second Test against the All Blacks (ko 8.35am)
Last Saturday’s game was a brilliant Test match to watch, despite the scoreline. The All Blacks played their usual triple threat game and produced all of their expected spark and flair, but so too did the Lions.
I was in my favourite place, running the touchline, where you get a feel for the pace and physicality of the game.
At times, it was quite brutal, with the Lions holding their own in that area.
I also get a feel for how the game is going and I have to admit that the match statistics of the Lions having only 30 per cent possession and 37 per cent territory pretty much reflected how the game felt to me.
However, I also felt that we were matching the All Blacks’ firepower and at times actually on the verge of breaking the shackles and beginning to dominate.
In many ways the scoreboard will judge the Lions harshly, but we gave them scores from a missed high ball and a quick tap penalty – small margins win games, small errors lose Test matches.
Reviewing the game, we have identified that the Lions had five real chances to score and took two.
The All Blacks had three chances and took all three. That is the lesson we have to learn very quickly.
From where I was standing, the All Blacks’ main point of difference was how direct they were in taking the ball into contact, ferociously driving into the tackler or to the space either side, driving beyond the contact and passing out of it immediately or once beyond the tackler.
The second feature was how quickly the support player latches on, either receiving the offload or clearing the ruck for fast ball.
Once they gather this momentum, it is difficult to stop.
The coaches identified this early on and as Andy Farrell told the players at half-time - the only way to stop them is to smash them back in the tackle line on the gain line.
It’s not an easy task, but something we must do this week to stop their attack dead!
There were times when the pictures this game presented didn’t make sense – like the All Blacks out-scrummaging us for a penalty and when the Lions scored a length of the field counter-attack try that was full of magical running and brilliant offloading.
That’s why it was such a great game to watch, despite the fact we lost.
It was an incredibly physical game with some examples of great teamwork and pieces of outstanding individual talent.
A special mention goes to Kieran Read, who after a long lay-off and early return from a broken thumb, was outstanding.
He was tough as teak, athletic, competitive and has a great rugby brain - he would enjoy a couple of years in Northampton!
I don’t usually read the local newspapers as they can be pretty myopic down here, but I have to report that after a few weeks of giving the Lions a hard time, they were extremely complimentary since the game.
It was possibly because they were reporting from a winning position, but also because I genuinely feel they appreciate good rugby and they can’t wait for the second Test.
The Lions have certainly not been written off.
To beat New Zealand in the next Test we must find a combination of consistency, confidence and discipline for 80 mins.
We have a few things to fix - they are easily identifiable, but more difficult to translate into action.
This means finding a way to make the most of opportunities presented and finish off the scoring opportunities we make.
We have a massive chance to put things right and square the series.
The ‘Cake Tin’ stadium has very happy memories for me. Who can remember England beating the All Blacks there in 2003 and pushing them off the ball in a scrum with two players in the sin bin?
That was special – and this could be, too!
After the first Test and recovery with the boys, we flew down to Wellington, situated near the geographic centre of the country.
Wellington is the second most populated area of New Zealand with 405,000 residents.
A compact city, it encompasses a waterfront promenade, sandy beaches, a working harbour and colourful timber houses on surrounding hills.
Strong winds through the Cook Strait give it the nickname ‘Windy Wellington’. Landing in a small aircraft is not for the fainthearted!
It is also the home of the Hurricanes rugby team, current Super Rugby champions and a free-scoring team whose philosophy appears to be ‘if you score four tries then we will just score six!’.
We have been training at Porirua to the north and it is notable for its large Maori and Pacific Island communities.
As for the game against the Hurricanes on Tuesday, the 31-31 draw was a disappointing result for us. There was a real feeling that we had lost.
We were in such good positions to close the game out, but, as I have said before, teams down here play to the final whistle, never give up and believe they will win to the end.
I would imagine that it was another great game of rugby to watch as a fan as it had everything, from pace and ferocity to skill and finesse - and a big comeback!
The Lions actually competed very well early on and then began to dominate the set piece and open play exchanges.
The Hurricanes always posed a threat in open play, fielding All Blacks wingers Nehe Milner-Skudder, whose shape, size, speed and footwork remind me of Jason Robinson, and Julian Savea, a local hero who had something to prove.
This challenge was met really well by Jack Nowell, who switched to the wing from full-back due to Robbie Henshaw’s chest injury, and Saints star George North, who had his best game so far on tour.
In fact, he was at times back to his barnstorming best and scored what looked like an amazing try, showing pace, skill and agility down the touchline – only to be denied by the faintest foot in touch.
Had this try been allowed, the Lions would have most certainly won this match. Small margins again!
Lock Iain Henderson was really unfortunate to be sin binned for a ruck clearance that seemed pretty innocuous.
However, it cost us dearly as the Hurricanes then went into overdrive, scoring two quick tries in succession and threatening at every opportunity.
We shouldn’t be surprised though, as the Hurricanes are the current Super Rugby champions, scoring more tries than any other team and their centres Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett, brother of All Blacks ace Beauden, are leading the try-scoring tables.
As I said at the top of this piece, the Hurricanes don’t mind conceding three or four tries as they are confident they will go on and score five or six!
My thoughts before coming to New Zealand were that Super Rugby was all about attack and that they may have weakness around defence, ruck and contact areas.
It appears that I was wrong.
Make or break
It is now make or break time for the Lions.
We know what we have to do to beat New Zealand – we have demonstrated that we can do this at times.
Now we need to do this for the full 80 minutes.
Of the 40,000 crowd at Westpac Stadium, at least 50 per cent of them will be Lions supporters - and they are in for a real treat.
Tune in early back home - and fasten your seatbelts.
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