Lions prepare for decider with bungee jumping and beer
While there has been criticism, the trip to Queensland has helped the team to bond
George Kruis makes a leap of faith as he and some of his British & Irish Lions team-mates took time out from the usual buildup to a Test by going bungee jumping. Photograph: GeorgeKruis/Instagram
It is at times like this, with a major Test series poised at 1-1 before a decisive finale, that top-level coaches earn their money. On the one hand the British & Irish Lions need no extra motivation for the biggest game of their lives, on the other they must take the field on Saturday with precisely the right mindset. It is part art, part science, particularly in the final week of an 11-month season.
Some head coaches, on the eve of a “cup final”, like to trust in the months of hard training their players have already banked and change nothing. Others come into their own immediately before the biggest occasions, either through gut selections or in how they tweak their team’s preparations. On Lions tours, where the alchemy has to happen quickly or not at all, it helps to have one of the latter sort.
Which brings us to Warren Gatland. His detractors – and he still has a surprising number of them – are overlooking his record when the stakes are at their highest. During his time with Wasps he pretty much patented the trick of squeaking into the play-offs and then blowing sides away on finals day. They won the Premiership title three years on the trot, even wearing bin liners under their training kit before their first success in 2003 to replicate the predicted grand final day heat. When England came to Cardiff for the deciding game of the 2013 Six Nations, with pre-match anticipation levels not dissimilar to this weekend, Wales won 30-3.
On the past two Lions tours of South Africa and Australia, both of which Gatland has been involved in, the touring squad have won the third Tests by the respective scorelines of 28-9 and 41-16. A team who should have been knackered produced some of their best rugby on each occasion. Paul “Bobby” Stridgeon, the strength and conditioning expert who has been a key member of Gatland’s staff at Wasps and Wales, was on both of those tours and is here in New Zealand as well.
A couple of mentally reinvigorating days away from rugby, with the odd beer also permitted, at the end of a long, arduous tour is hardly rocket science. In 2009 the players went on safari and four years ago they spent time in Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Allowing players to go jet-boating and, in some cases, bungee jumping in central Otago on Tuesday was all part of the same pattern and was sanctioned by the medical staff and management.
Two players were advised not to jump because of pre-existing back conditions but Jack Nowell, George Kruis and Taulupe Faletau took the plunge and Stridgeon, who was a wrestler in a previous life, reckons it will refresh the parts another gym session cannot reach: “The boys haven’t had any proper days off, so it’s great to have the boys refreshed. We’ve run this blueprint with Warren a couple of times … whenever we’ve done it we’ve performed well. It’s similar to 2013 when Andy Farrell spoke to the boys after losing the second Test. The boys all wanted to train on the Monday and he made the comment that if we’d done that we’d have played our Test match by Friday. It’s mental refreshment, so we don’t play our game too early.”
Meanwhile, the Lions doctor, Eanna Falvey, says all the players who featured in the second Test win in Wellington are available to face the All Blacks. Jared Payne has remained on the North Island after complaining of recurring migraines, although he has been cleared from concussion after the knock he received against the Chiefs on 20 June. “Thankfully all his tests have been good,” Falvey said. “The specialist is quite happy with him. He’ll have a couple more minor tests and that will give us more idea. But while he still has a headache, he won’t be training.”
His Ireland colleague Robbie Henshaw will not play before October after tearing a pectoral muscle off the bone but otherwise Falvey is hoping rest will ease all the minor bumps and bruises. Managing players, he reckons, is best done on a case-by-case basis. “Even in rugby there are Clydesdales and thoroughbreds. Some guys you can send out week in, week out, others, the quicker fast-twitch players, need some time. There’s no one size fits all.”
Assuming everyone’s energy levels are successfully replenished, changes to the starting XV for the final Test are likely to be minimal. There is certainly unlikely to be a shock to match 2013, when Brian O’Driscoll’s omission from the final Test created major waves. One player sure to keep his place is Maro Itoje, whose second Test performance was described as “exceptional” by his Saracens’ colleague Jamie George: “He took himself to a place I’ve never seen before. He showed real maturity and led that pack around. It was brilliant to witness and be a part of.” The Lions hooker also thinks the touring team have made an impact on the locals who, according to one survey, could not name a solitary visiting player prior to the tour. “If we win the series 2-1 I’m sure they’ll know who we are,” George predicted.