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Lawrence on the Lions: Lions arrive in NZ

By Lawrence Dallagio
QBE ambassador

Watching the Lions squad receive the traditional powhiri welcome at Auckland airport, that unique moment is all part of the excitement of touring. Obviously there is a lot of history and tradition. You have to embrace it, and it is something you have to enjoy.

Without wishing to play down any of the wonderful welcomes that are there, because you want to respect that, from a player’s point of view you have to get down to business, which is somehow preparing for this first game.

There will not be any excuses offered up regardless of what happens. The one thing I do remember is having terrible jet-lag when I arrived in New Zealand. The modern day player can cope that much better, and there are protocols and a routine to help you recover from that.

But the reality is they had dinner on Sunday, flew on Monday, land on Wednesday and then have to play the first game on Saturday. That is a tough ask.

There is not a huge amount you can do when it comes to getting over the jet-lag apart from letting nature take its course. There are supplements you can take to reduce your heart rate and help your sleeping patterns normalise. From memory it takes about three of four days to adjust.

I’m sure Warren Gatland will have thought about who is best placed to play that first game bearing in mind how much each player has played in recent weeks. Jet-lag or not, there is a huge amount of excitement, and every player will want to be available for selection.

Once you get out on tour, you desperately want to get in that jersey and play. I was lucky enough to do that on separate occasions on Lions tours and you want that responsibility. You do not want to be waiting for that first game.

And what we do know about any tour, be it the Lions or your local team, is that you want a fast start, and the golden rule of touring is to win your first game, regardless of who it is against.

You need that momentum straight away. And those players in the first game will have that responsibility to get the tour off to a fast start. Every pass and tackle will be analysed for any weaknesses or signs as to how the Lions might play.

What a wonderful responsibility it is though, to be the first XV players to wear the Lions shirt on this tour. The haka and Maori welcome is all about embracing the challenge and the Lions now have a chance to put a marker down, and to show that the 2017 group are here to be as competitive as they can be.

One world-class player sadly not joining the Lions in New Zealand is Billy Vunipola. He was playing some of the best rugby of his life, and was arguably the most in form forward in the world given what he was doing. To say his withdrawal is a huge blow is an understatement. It is a tough one to swallow.

However, it was a very brave decision to be honest enough to say that he did not feel he could be 100 percent fit. He clearly had been carrying that shoulder injury for a little while and made it worse in that Premiership semi-final against eventual winners Exeter Chiefs.

Vunipola would have genuinely caused New Zealand some problems and has the ability to do things that very few forwards can do. He takes the ball over the gain-line at will, breaks tackles - anybody’s tackles, not just on this side of the Equator - and has a subtlety to his game that allows him to offload before contact.

People rally around him and follow him. As good a player as James Haskell is, Vunipola was head and shoulders above anyone else the form player in Europe. It may just tip the balance back towards New Zealand.

The Lions will rally and he will not be the last withdrawal, but if you could choose one player you would prefer not to lose, it would probably be Vunipola. He would been in the Test team before the plane even left, so you need to think again.

It puts more responsibility on CJ Stander and Taulupe Faletau as the natural number eights in the squad. It may also open the door for others like Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, with the latter pushing for a Test place anyway. It also changes the back row balance because you have to somehow replace that level of ball-carrying.

New Zealand are not without their own injury worries in two key players in Kieran Read and Dane Coles. You ideally want the best players fit enough and to not miss out due to injury. A lot of their players will not have many minutes under their belt from the last few weeks, the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Dagg.

Coles would be a big loss, but he might see some action later on in the tour. Vunipola has no such luck, and come the Test series the Lions will miss him. Right now though, all the energy and excitement that comes from landing in New Zealand must be channelled into a strong start this weekend.