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Lions training gets 'heated' as Gatland's men come under Kiwi pressure

Tomorrow’s meeting with the Blues is bordering on must-win territory.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

SPIRITS IN THE Lions’ camp are said to be very high despite a poor showing in the opening game of their tour of New Zealand on Saturday, but there is a recognition that things take a real step up from tomorrow.

Warren Gatland’s men face the Blues at Eden Park [KO 8.35am Irish time, Sky Sports] in their first encounter with New Zealand’s excellent Super Rugby teams and the tension will certainly rise a degree or two in Auckland.

Head Coach Warren Gatland during the Captains Run Warren Gatland at Lions training today. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With the New Zealand media already ploughing into the Lions for their lacklustre performance against the Provincial Barbarians, one can hear the knives being sharpened in the event that Gatland’s side lose to the worst Kiwi Super Rugby team.

Being the ‘worst’ Kiwi Super Rugby team is a very relative concept.

While the Highlanders, Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes are all above them in the Australasian table, the Blues are sixth and some distance better than all the Aussie teams aside from the Brumbies.

With eight All Blacks included in their team to face the Lions tomorrow, they will provide a serious test of whether Gatland’s men have a real backbone.

So while the Lions insist they are relaxed and can afford to possibly lose a game or two along the way to the Test series, we are already entering something that resembles must-win territory.

A loss to the Blues would plant the first real seeds of doubt into the Lions’ players minds, and we can be certain that the Kiwi press would be only too happy to follow that up with a full-on assault.

The beginnings of the pressure are starting to show on the Lions, with Gatland reacting with frustration to suggestions that his team will play ‘Warrenball’ on this tour. Steve Hansen, the wily old fox, has been only too happy to stir that particular pot.

It’s perhaps a slight cause for concern that Gatland is engaging with this kind of narrative so early in the tour – the New Zealand Herald ran a ‘Grumpy Gatland’ headline on the front cover of their sports section – but then the Lions boss is no stranger to mind games either.

Dan Biggar Dan Biggar practises his kicking at Eden Park. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Lions players themselves recognise that the tour is turning a corner tomorrow in Eden Park, with a welcome edge to their training sessions.

“We were playing an offload drill and it got pretty heated,” said assistant coach Rob Howley today. “We’re mindful of injuries, but we are mindful of putting players under pressure as well.

“We have a hugely competitive squad here and we did a drill yesterday, an offload drill and the contact was explosive.

“That’s the challenge for us, sometimes you have to sit back as the players want to give everything in training and we have to make sure we’re smart with that.”

Gatland is sending some big guns out to take on the Blues tomorrow, with the likes of Robbie Henshaw, Maro Itoje and Leigh Halfpenny having already been pencilled into some people’s predicted Test sides.

The Lions badly need a performance and, in truth, they badly need a win. Facing into a clash with the undefeated Crusaders on Saturday after a defeat to the Blues, with the media swinging into furore mode, would not be any fun at all.

The press on this side of the world are seemingly content to add to the All Blacks’ cause and there was a fine example of that with the pre-emptive article in the Herald regarding Tana Umaga and the 2005 incident with Brian O’Driscoll.

The Lions’ performance against the Barbarians in Whangarei was derided as embarrassing, unconvincing, a damp squib, and mediocre depending on which publication one turned to. Defeat to the Blues would bring more of the same, only in a greater flow of negativity.

Of course, this tour is not all about the off-pitch matters and many in the Lions squad will simply laugh at the Kiwi press’ efforts to get under their skin and distract.

Maro Otoje during the Captains Run Maro Itoje comes into the team tomorrow. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The touring party have been working hard on their tactical approach on the training pitch and in the meeting room, and the Lions say they have been looking at “chaos” as a key element.

“Chaos” refers to the unstructured nature of rugby, in which the Kiwi sides so excel. Kick return and counter attack are the key sources of tries for the All Blacks and the majority of New Zealand teams, while they are comfortable scrambling in defence.

For the Lions, learning to cope with the chaos is key.

“That’s the nature of the game, that’s rugby in the southern hemisphere,” said Howley. “That’s how the majority of international sides play, that’s from chaos, that’s from structure.

“The majority of the game now is from kick returns and turnovers and it’s the ability to react in those situations and to not get left behind, to be ahead of the game. That’s in terms of support lines and handling skills.

“That’s something we’ve talked about with 15 versus 15 [in training sessions]. We have a hugely-motivated squad and that’s in terms of linespeed and Andy Farrell’s coaching us players to come off the line.

“There are different pictures over here, the way the game is and we’re trying to get up to speed with those pictures, hence the rugby chaos. The players are enjoying it as the rugby chaos doesn’t go on for too long and it’s about intensity and the speed of the game and the speed of the decision-making and getting the ball to the wide channels.

“The more we practise it, obviously it’s in its infancy at the moment but the more we keep working and we’ll see improvement on Wednesday night.”

Warren Gatland The Lions need a win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

One thing that a packed-out Eden Park will bring tomorrow is chaos.

The Lions will be convinced they can swim but if they sink, the Kiwis will be only too happy to place a hand firmly on their head and push them even deeper into the water.

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Murray Kinsella

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