Gatland has his Lions in peak physical condition for second Test

Bullish head coach believes side will get stronger and stronger as the game goes on

 British & Irish Lions squad training ahead of the second Test against the Springboks. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

British & Irish Lions squad training ahead of the second Test against the Springboks. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

One of Warren Gatland’s fortes as a head coach is to invariably have his squads supremely well primed physically. The superior fitness and conditioning of his players was a major factor in last Saturday’s first Test win. As much as anything, it gives the tourists every chance of winning the series.

The bald facts are that the Lions won the second half 19-5 last Saturday after losing the first period 12-3. Naturally it’s not all down to fitness but this has been part of a striking trend on this tour. In the first 40 minutes of their six games so far, the Lions have scored 100 points and conceded 65. In the six second halves they’ve scored 165 points and only conceded 24 points.

In the two games against the South African A side and the Springboks, the Lions have been outscored by a combined 29-6 in the first half, and won the two second halves by 29-5.

It’s a crude statistic, based on just two games but, again, it maintains a striking pattern. In their six tour games, the Lions haven’t conceded a solitary point in the last 27 minutes of any game.

Lions head coach Warren Gatland is confident about the second Test. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Lions head coach Warren Gatland is confident about the second Test. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Admittedly, things have fallen into place a little. The Springboks are not as match hardened and have suffered a debilitating outbreak of Covid-19 in their ranks, which contributed to the cancellation of their second warm-up game against Georgia.

By contrast, while the lamentable Rainbow Cup may have afforded the Springboks’ home-based players some badly needed game time, it also eased the load on the Lions’ Celtic players, and contributed to Gatland having 26 players for the entirety of his two-week, pre-tour training camp in New Jersey.

Altitude training

He’s never had that luxury before, and he’s clearly used it well. All told, 14 of the 23-man match-day squad from last Saturday were in New Jersey, and 14 of today’s were there as well. In addition, the entire squad then had two weeks of training at altitude in their Johannesburg base before relocating two weeks before the first Test to sea level at Cape Town, where they will now remain for the rest of the series.

Logistically, Gatland couldn’t have wanted it much better and no Lions squad to South Africa has ever had it like this. Of 40 players, only Alun Wyn Jones is injured.

Despite the preceding midweek defeat by the South African A side, even before last Saturday’s first Test, a typically bullish Gatland ventured: “Even in the A game, particularly the second half and how strongly we finished, we were in a great position from a conditioning point of view. The guys have worked incredibly hard in Jersey and since we’ve been here. We’ve done the altitude stuff and got the benefit from that too as we have come down to sea level. So we are not going to fall away. We think as the game goes on we are going to get stronger and stronger.”

Gatland placed a huge emphasis on strength and conditioning at Wasps, having three students placed among their fitness staff along with three fully employed fitness coaches, under Craig White, whom he brought from his days with Ireland. The Lions head coach has carried this approach on to his dozen years at the helm with Wales, who always finished Six Nations Championships and World Cups strongly.

Gatland also has trusted lieutenants.

At the Lions captain’s dinner at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin in October 2016, Martyn Phillips, the chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, approached Gatland and Brian O’Driscoll and asked the latter: “Of all the people you could have on the Lions coaching staff to New Zealand, who would you take?”

Lions strength and conditioning coach Paul Stridgeon during the captains’ run. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Lions strength and conditioning coach Paul Stridgeon during the captains’ run. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

“It’s got to be Bobby,” said O’Driscoll in reference to Paul Stridgeon who, like all the players under his watch, appreciated not only Stridgeon’s qualities as an strength and conditioning coach but for what Gatland describes as “the personality, humour and entertainment value” he brings on tour.

The slightly madcap, livewire Paul “Bobby” Stridgeon was one of those academy fitness coaches brought in by White at Wasps and he has worked with Gatland on and off for 18 years, mostly with Wales and the Lions.

Stridgeon is now on his fourth Lions tour, having been an assistant strength and conditioning coach on the tours of 2009 and 2013, before assuming the role of head of strength and conditioning on the Lions tours of 2017 and this one.

In Gatland’s view, the key to having a squad such as the Lions well primed come the Test series is to frontload the conditioning, which made the training camps in Jersey and Johannesburg so vital. It means that the work is done and can be topped off in weeks such as this with short sharp weights sessions, often optional.

On-field training sessions are also relatively short, about 40 minutes to 50 maximum, and are conducted at a higher intensity than in matches. Gatland also places a premium on repetition, and on working hard to recover from injuries.

Surprised

Speaking after last week’s first Test victory, Gatland admitted that a major part of the Lions’ game plan, akin to Wales, was to increase the ball in play time.

“That’s a big part of it if you’re limiting the number of lineouts the opposition can have; then you’re trying to use aspects or areas where you think you’ve got some strengths. Obviously, for us, we feel like we’ve worked hard from a conditioning perspective. So I was a little bit surprised that they kicked out as much as they did and I just wonder if that was a tactic of theirs to slow the game down to stay in it or to try and put our lineout under pressure for turnovers.

“Then it’s about keeping the ball in the right areas of the field and playing through phases and putting them under pressure and moving their forward pack around. It’s not always easy but like I’ve said we’re pretty happy where we are from that aspect. We’re happy that the second half we won 19-5 which was a good indication of where we are. We’ve just got to make sure that we’re better in the first half.”

Yet, in actual fact, the ball in play time was only marginally over 30 minutes, which is relatively low.

Indeed “strange old game”, was how Jack Conan described it. “The ball in play wasn’t that high. I don’t think anyone had a lot of carries or tackles or anything like that. Some work was kinda hard to come by at times.”

As well as 18 line-outs, 18 scrums, many of which were reset, there were 22 penalties, including 11 shots at goal, all of which helped to reduce the ball in play time. It was also noticeable how much the Springboks seemed to want to keep the game at a very slow pace. “Let’s use it nine,” was Nic Berry’s most regular refrain of the day, and always aimed toward Faf de Klerk.

The Springboks will assuredly come back stronger today and, with a game under their belts, should improve physically.

“They’re going to keep working hard as a group and will continue to improve in those areas,” Gatland admitted of the Boks. “But we feel like there’s an awful lot more in us too. From a conditioning point of view, it looks like we’re getting stronger and stronger and are able to keep the intensity and the pace going for the whole 80 minutes. That’s a really pleasing aspect of how hard we’ve worked over the last six weeks or so.”

Yet when asked if he believes South Africa can really catch up with the Lions’ fitness and conditioning this week, Gatland added: “I’m not sure. It’s quite hard in a week. To get conditioned from a running issue, you’ve got to be doing some extras and top-ups. We’ve been doing that throughout the whole tour. During the Test week, you have some hard training sessions but it’s quite hard to top up from a conditioning point of view.”

The message that the Lions are fitter and stronger will be conveyed to the players too, for it’s another thing knowing it.

In the middle of the third Test week four years ago, the Lions sports scientist Brian Cunniffe, from the English Institute of Sport and who is also on this tour, presented the GPS figures from the first two Tests to the Lions coaches, who in turn passed the information on to the players. In both Tests the running metres per minute were higher in the last quarter than the first quarter, and also that had increased from the first Test to the second Test.

Of course, there are no guarantees with this, as Gatland knows well from the trek to Australia eight years ago, although the Lions have again earned themselves two cracks at winning the series.

“We saw in 2013 when we had won the first Test the amount that Australia put into that second Test, and not just from a physical point of view but from an emotional point of view. I didn’t feel like they could get to the same level for the third Test and that proved to be the case. I would love to win the Test series this week and take the pressure off but with South Africa you know it’s going to be another tight contest.”

Either way, the Lions are in a good place physically.

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