Ollie Phillips: British and Irish Lions in for a rude awakening

Ollie Phillips
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British & Irish Lions Media & Training Session
Warren Gatland appears to have struck the right chord with regards to camaraderie (Source: Getty)

They've been hidden away at their training camp in Ireland and it’s probably all been fairly jovial but Saturday’s opening clash of the tour is likely to be a rude awakening for Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions.

It won’t be the quality of the opposition – the Lions should post a resounding victory over the Provincial Barbarians – but a realisation of the magnitude of what is to come and the intensity of the environment.

They’ll be a long way from home and it will be dawning on them that nobody particularly likes them over there. It will be a culture shock, especially having only stepped off the plane two days ago.

I’m not sure that we’re going to learn a huge amount from Saturday’s game. We might get a sense of the style of play that Gatland wants his side to employ but I doubt we’ll get a huge insight into what the Lions team for the first Test is going to be all about.

What I do expect to see is a few mistakes, some players not necessarily understanding the intricacies of each other’s play, but a team spirit, hunger and appetite from them to hold their hand up and stake a claim for a starting Lions jersey.

Up until recently it was all about players getting onto the plane to New Zealand but now they are rivals for a starting berth and it comes down to how far they are prepared to go after a long and brutal season.

It’s the business end for selection. Gatland has reiterated that Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton will be competing for the No10 jersey, for instance, so that shows how ferocious the level of competition is.

Even though it’s very early days, it’s encouraging that Gatland appears to have learned from past mistakes on Lions tours, although it’s disappointing to hear some of the backstabbing going on about previous coaches.

There has been criticism of Graham Henry’s approach in 2001 when he split his squad early in the tour into those likely to start in the Tests against Australia and those almost certainly on the periphery.

Sir Clive Woodward has also received flak for taking an army of players and support staff to New Zealand in 2005. Ultimately those two coaches implemented their methods with good intentions.

It is a positive, however, that the modern-day coaching team can learn from any perceived errors and it would appear that Gatland has struck the right chord in terms of camaraderie and team bonding.

He’s probably better placed than most to do that. The 53-year-old understands the modern game but also old-school values. This is his third Lions tour after all, following his role as assistant to Sir Ian McGeechan in South Africa in 2009 and Australia as head coach four years ago.

It will be interesting to see how all that manifests itself on the pitch, how united the team are on Saturday and to what extent they have integrated as a squad. It would also do the tourists no harm at all to get off to a fluent, powerful and winning start.

Ollie Phillips is a former England Sevens captain and now a director at PwC, focusing on organisational, cultural and technological change.@OlliePhillips11

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