make or break

Lots of outside 'noise' but Lions must now produce performance of a lifetime

Warren Gatland believes is Test team are totally focused on the task.

Murray Kinsella reports from Wellington

THE MUDSLINGING CONTINUES and the outside ‘noise’ is getting deafening, but the Lions players will need to stay ultra-focused in the next three days if they are to produce the goods in Saturday’s second Test against the All Blacks.

Rory Best with the team after the game Rory Best speaks after Tuesday's draw with the Hurricanes. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Realistically, it is going to take the performance of a lifetime from Warren Gatland’s match day 23 to overhaul the Kiwis and level the series heading into the final Test in Auckland in two weekends’ time.

The Lions got a taster for the atmosphere in the Cake Tin in Wellington last night, where this weekend’s second Test will take place, but aside from big performances by Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson – and acknowledging that it was a very entertaining contest – there was little of relevance.

Holding on for a win would have been a nice momentum boost for the Test team, but it’s extremely unlikely that the likes of Conor Murray, Jonathan Davies and Taulupe Faletau awoke on Wednesday morning dispirited after the midweekers collapsed in the final quarter to draw with the Hurricanes.

They may be aware of the furore before and after the game, though.

Their head coach was depicted as a clown by the New Zealand Herald again on Tuesday morning, while he made the surprising admission that public criticism around the so-called ‘geography six’ had changed his plans to use those players off the bench.

The Lions’ refusal to send on reinforcements was damaging in giving up a 14-point lead to the Hurricanes, and it can’t have filled the Test players with great confidence to hear that their coach had been swayed by the opinion of people who know nothing about doing his job.

While Steve Hansen has been getting stuck in and also using the cheerleading New Zealand Herald to get his message out there, the All Blacks are experienced enough to know that the media coverage doesn’t reflect the reality.

A view of the Lions' management team late in the day Gatland and his coaching staff in Wellington. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“There’s a few little issues floating around, but at the end of the day this is going to be a Titanic Test match, isn’t it?” said All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster.

“We’re 1-0 up, but we know there’s going to be a very desperate team down the road, and if we’re not desperate – and match that, and better that – it’s going to be a hard night for us.

“This whole week’s about us preparing and playing as well as we can. When there’s a lot at stake often there’s lots of noise around games and people try and chuck things at you from different sides, but at the end of the day it doesn’t change a thing. We’ve got a pure rugby team to play on Saturday.”

Gatland, meanwhile, is convinced that his players haven’t taken their eye off the ball since going 1-0 down in Auckland last weekend.

While the midweek side prepared for their final game of the tour, the Test team have been working hard in the background, determined to ensure that they reach the kind of emotional and physical levels that were lacking in the first Test.

Gatland has been delighted with the response he has seen.

“They’ve been excellent this week, the guys that have trained, the guys not involved in tonight’s match,” said the Lions boss after the draw with the Hurricanes. “They had a tough training session this morning, a good player’s meeting.

“It was a quality [first] Test match. The All Blacks played well and I’ve tried to give them some credit. It was a big step up in terms of the intensity and pressure the All Blacks play the game at.

A view of Westpac Stadium Westpac Stadium will be packed again on Saturday. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I spoke to an official and he said it was a big step up for him, and that’s the ability of the All Blacks to take Test match rugby to another level. Our guys will have learned a lot from the experience.

“The attitude of the guys preparing for this [Hurricanes] game has been outstanding. Rory Best has done a brilliant job in terms of leading. They’re gutted, disappointed, they know they let an opportunity slip.

“The other players have been incredibly focused about what a challenge it is to play the All Blacks here on Saturday night. The emotion and physicality the All Blacks brought on Saturday, we have to match that.”

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