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Leinster and Saracens players link with Lions to take NZ prep to next level

Warren Gatland has been keeping a close eye on New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams.

WARREN GATLAND WOULD have certainly felt some relief watching Leinster and Saracens lose last weekend.

Their defeats in the Pro12 and Premiership semi-finals mean he has an extra 11 of his Lions squad in camp at Carton House this week, fully switched-on to preparing for the tour of New Zealand rather than facing another game that holds potential injury.

Jonathan Sexton Sean O'Brien and Johnny Sexton with Lions defence coach Andy Farrell. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After bringing together his only 14 available players last week, Gatland now has a group of 30 at Carton House and it feels like the 2017 Lions story has begun in earnest.

There are still several important figures to arrive from the clubs involved in play-off rugby this weekend, including a trio of Munster men, but Gatland will be putting the foot down this week when it comes to the Lions’ learning.

Their first game is in just 10 days against a Provincial Union XV in Whangerai on the North Island of New Zealand.

Given the incredibly tight timeframe for preparation, Gatland says the Lions will have to be very specific in their training focus before the tour gets underway.

“It’s trying to prioritise what’s important over the next few weeks, how much we need to focus on in terms of the important aspects of preparing for a New Zealand side, and some things are going to be important to us and some things are going to have to give a little bit because we won’t have time to cover everything,” said the Lions boss.

Gatland highlighted the importance of players “getting themselves in front of the computers to learn everything” and those demands to learn an entirely new playbook are crucial.

It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall and watch the working relationship between Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar in particular, those three being the out-half options in the squad.

Tadhg Furlong Tadhg Furlong looks to beat fellow playmaking prop Mako Vunipola. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One of them will be the on-field tactical leader for the Lions come the Test series against the All Blacks.

There will be fascinating selection battles all over the park, however, with the back row sure to be one of the most fiercely contested.

However, the Lions have lost Billy Vunipola to injury already, meaning they are deprived of one of the players the Kiwis would have been genuinely apprehensive about facing.

The Saracens number eight made a decision to withdraw from the tour in order to undergo shoulder surgery and Gatland revealed that Vunipola’s club had been happy for him to tour and have the operation after returning from New Zealand.

“It was completely 100% his decision,” said Gatland when asked if he felt Saracens had influenced Vunipola.

“Saracens have been brilliant in the way they’ve managed their players, brilliant in terms of releasing all of their players for that [Messy] Monday that we had together.

“They were happy for him to go on tour, were happy for him to have an operation after the tour - which would have had some effect on him missing the start of the season – so there was definitely no input from them.”

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Gatland is instead concentrating on the players he does have available, with CJ Stander and Taulupe Faletau now set to compete for the number eight jersey in Vunipola’s absence.

Stuart Hogg Scotland fullback Stuart Hoggs shows off his hurling skills. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

On the other side of the coin, Gatland and his analysts have been keeping a close eye on Super Rugby to track the Kiwi teams and any trends in that regard.

All Blacks and Hurricanes out-half Beauden Barrett has been in sensational form for much of the competition, although the Crusaders did manage to shut down his best attacking play when the sides met recently.

The Crusaders’ aggressive linespeed pressurised Barrett and Gatland feels there may be something in that for the Lions to learn from.

The fact that the Crusaders are unbeaten this year and the defence has been one of the aspects they have concentrated on… they got off the line that day and didn’t give Barrett the space that he has sometimes enjoyed in other games.

“We can take something out of that and look at that and, yeah, it was still a pretty close contest in terms of how the game went.

“From our point of view, you looked at it and saw that he was under some pressure and the Crusaders did defend very well in looking to shut him down.”

Generally speaking, anyone watching the Kiwi teams in Super Rugby will have been impressed. The scale of the challenge ahead of the Lions, even in the warm-up games, is perhaps the greatest it has ever been.

Warren Gatland Gatland on the training pitch at Carton House. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The New Zealand teams’ sheer try-scoring ability is eye-opening, although Gatland says it’s a trend in their defensive tactics that may be more relevant for the Lions.

“They are obviously playing very well, there’s some outstanding rugby being played by the New Zealand teams in the way that they are dominating the competition. We know how difficult they will be as opposition.

“A lot of those teams are going through transition in terms of the way they are defending. Teams are coming up particularly hard off the line, so we are just watching that pretty closely in terms of that transition at the moment.

“The way New Zealand sides have traditionally defended [with a drift], there’s a bit of a change in the way that they are doing that.

“But here is no doubt but that they are playing some outstanding rugby and they are going to be tough prospects for us leading into the Test matches.”

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