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Lawrence on the Lions: Lions picking up the pace

By Lawrence Dallagio
QBE ambassador

Warren Gatland has come under plenty of fire over the recent Lions call-ups, but after convincing victories over the Maori All Blacks the Chiefs spirits are rightly high in the group ahead of the Test series.

Regarding the controversial call-ups, it feels like a case of needs must. You do not want to be bringing Test players off the bench in mid-week and risking injury. The reasons for adding those players do not sit comfortably, and I can understand why.

Logistically however in the modern game, you are on the other side of the world and it is not as though you can pick up the phone and get anyone in immediately, and also you do not want to disrupt other people's tours.

The way Gatland has handled himself since under the criticism shows that he understands that getting a Lions call-up is a special thing. It is not until you have been on the tour that you realise the stresses and strains on the squad. Adding those players has been the right thing to do and handled as well as it possibly could have been.

As for those two victories, people often forget that this is a very united group right from the start. With any result, you share the pain of defeat and the sweetness of victory. No one is under any allusions with regards to the task in hand of playing in New Zealand, and there have been many column inches written about how hard it is to win there at Eden Park. However, it is nice for the Lions to go into that match as a touring party with a bit of momentum.

Make no mistake, every victory there in New Zealand is a significant one, because it throws a little bit back at all the doubters and those who have suggested this is going to be a very one-sided Test series.

This is the first game that the mid-week group have won, making it a big feather in their cap, albeit against a weakened Chiefs side - although there are no 'weak' sides as such in New Zealand.

Tuesday's win over the Chiefs was a performance that had the foundations again of a solid effort upfront from the pack. The set-piece and defence were strong, the latter being a hallmark of the trip, but finally it was nice to see some rewards for the backs for their efforts. They showed people that the Lions can finish off tries, and it was good to see them counter-attacking because that could be a key part of the Test series.

For those who know a lot about rugby, the reality is when you are a group of players who come together in a limited space of time, the easiest thing is to work on the basics - the scrum, lineout and so on.

What takes time for any player, even a New Zealander, is the attacking shape and structure. It has nothing to do with mindset or ambition. It is about being pragmatic and building from there.

If the Lions are fast and loose against the All Blacks they will get destroyed, and they know that. Every team that has tried to mimic their style against them has come off second best.

Quite rightly the Lions' game-plan is constructed around the set-piece and getting the basics of the game right. The rest is not quite as instinctive and takes a little bit of time, and we are starting to see that now ahead of the Tests off the back of the work the players have put in.

Everyone is aware how tough the Tests are going to be. But we have seen enough in the tour so far to suggest that this will be a very competitive Test series.  That first game in a three-match series is also so important. If you lose that you leave yourself with a real mountain to climb.

Undoubtedly there are areas of the Lions game that can test the All Blacks, but equally, there will be moments where the Lions will have to defend for their lives given how strong the All Blacks' ability to quickly recycle possession.

From my own experience, you have to defend with intensity and patience for long periods of time.

Statistically very few teams have won in New Zealand, so we cannot hide from the truth. I don't think any of the current tour party have won in New Zealand itself, although some have last November [for Ireland in Chicago] and back in 2012 with England's win at Twickenham.

Andy Farrell eluded this week that these players are going to have to play at a level that they have never played at before in order to get a result.

But that is the exciting challenge, and also one of the great things about the Lions - it pushes you out of your comfort zone, to a new level. It certainly did with me in 1997 because I wanted to achieve something that I had not done before, even at the age of 24.

We have a chance. The All Blacks have not lost at Eden Park since 1994 and it going to take a very good side to beat them. To defeat New Zealand you have to be prepared to suffer a little bit more. And the Lions are now ready to do so.