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Brutal schedule could 'take a toll' on the Lions before All Blacks Tests

Warren Gatland will be looking to build momentum but the warm-up games will be very difficult.

JUST IN CASE the task of taking on the All Blacks over the course of three Tests wasn’t enough for the Lions this summer, they face an incredibly tough schedule of ‘warm-up’ games before the series against Steve Hansen’s men.

Proceedings get underway on Saturday against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangerai, almost certainly the most straightforward fixture on the 10-game tour, but Super Rugby’s Blues, Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs await thereafter.

Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Sexton Stuart Hogg and Johnny Sexton before the Lions took off for New Zealand this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There’s also the small matter of a clash with the Māori All Blacks in Rotorua, an occasion that promises to be akin to a fourth Test match, although the Super Rugby teams may offer a similarly brutal test of the Lions’ strength.

With Hansen’s All Blacks set to be released to their franchises to get an early taster of what Warren Gatland’s side have to offer, it’s clear why so many have suggested that this is the most difficult Lions tour of all time.

Scarlets’ Pro12-winning Kiwi head coach Wayne Pivac, who was coaching Auckland as recently as 2014, can see positives and negatives in this arduous schedule before the first Test on 24 June.

“It’s two-fold,” says Pivac. “It’s going to be the best preparation in terms of those guys are going to be match-hardened to New Zealand conditions, New Zealand rugby.

“All the franchises play a fairly similar style of rugby, it’s that All Blacks brand if you like, with a few tweaks to it. So in terms of doing revision, homework, it’s all going to be in front of them.

“They will be tough games, though, and it’s what they will take out of them. I guess there will be a plan there as to when they put their Test side out, how far into the tour. All those plans will be well and truly in place.”

Wayne Pivac Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Indeed, it will be fascinating to note how early Gatland looks to send his probable Test combinations onto the pitch together.

The likes of Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Jonathan Davies were playing club rugby as recently as last weekend, meaning they and others are still catching up on the crop of players who were first into Lions camp with Gatland.

Leinster captain Isa Nacewa will be among the fascinated observers of the Lions’ tour from back on Irish shores and he says that he’s more intrigued about these warm-up games than the meetings with the All Blacks.

“Personally, what’s more exciting for me is when they play the five Super franchises,” says Nacewa. “These are teams that are going to have their All Blacks released.

“They are teams that can play. For me, they’re going to be the games to watch even more than the test matches.”

The sense from New Zealand is that Nacewa’s enthusiasm for those games early on the tour is widely matched.

Isa Nacewa Isa Nacewa is keen to see what happens during the warm-up games. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Every player who gets the chance of a lifetime to face the Lions will be incredibly motivated, every supporter will be keen to pile the misery onto the tourists, while some in the Kiwi media are likely to twist the knife.

In 2005, the Lions won all but one of their non-Test games in New Zealand, losing to the Māori, but getting close to a clean sweep this time around would be a real achievement.

“I played against The Lions in 2005,” says Nacewa, who lined out for Auckland in a 17-13 defeat. “They won every midweek game against what were the provinces then.

“Ronan O’Gara kicked a 45-metre goal from the sideline to down us when I was playing for Auckland. We would have had a 10-year reunion for the rest of our lives if we had won that match.

“These franchises are going to be stacked with good, high-quality players. That is going to be a difference in the tour alone.

“They played Manawatu in 2005 and scored 100 points. That is going to be very different to playing the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs, Crusaders, teams that are on top of their game.”

Warren Gatland Lions head coach Warren Gatland pictured during last week's training camp at Carton House. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While a demanding warm-up schedule may have the Lions match-hardened for the Test series, it will also give Hansen and the All Blacks ample opportunity to pick out their tactical ideas and structures.

On top of that, the warm-up games will give the All Blacks sustained exposure to the Lions’ individual players and their traits.

Munster boss Rassie Erasmus, who has coached against Kiwi teams before, warns the Lions of the dangers involved there.

“I think they’ll find that New Zealand is much more analytical and structured than most teams or most people think,” says Erasmus.

“If you have a few midweek games before the Test matches, they’ll start to know players individually.

“When you come over for a one-off Test match with South Africa, England or whatever, you don’t really analyse the players one-by-one.

Rassie Erasmus Rassie Erasmus: New Zealand 'much more analytical and structured than most teams' Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“So when New Zealand were playing Ireland in Chicago and here in Dublin, they wouldn’t have done a lot of individual analysis, in my opinion. But if you have a 10-match streak, they’ll start knowing players’ strengths and weaknesses and for me they’re one of the things that they exploit the best.

“They’ll know that a specific guy is a weak defender or a threat at the breakdown and I think that will be the challenge.

“When you catch them for one Test match they don’t really know how good or bad you are, that’s where the challenge lies on such a long tour because they’re pretty sharp at doing that.”

So, in case you hadn’t already realised, it’s unlikely to be plain sailing for the Lions in New Zealand and the danger is that Gatland’s men could be beaten up by the time the Tests come around.

“Yeah, I think so,” says Nacewa. “This is going to take a toll on players.”

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Murray Kinsella

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