ON TOUR WITH THE LIONS: Phil Pask’s New Zealand diary

ON THE MEND - Saints and Lions forward Courtney Lawes
ON THE MEND - Saints and Lions forward Courtney Lawes

This is the third in a series of weekly columns from former Saints player Phil Pask, who is a physio and part of the medical team on tour with the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand... the Lions tour continues on Saturday morning when they play Maori All Blacks at the Rotorua International Stadium (ko 8.35am)

We had obviously learned lessons from the game against Auckland Blues – and what a great game of rugby it was against the Crusaders in Christchurch last Saturday.

The atmosphere was fantastic and the game opened with several knights on horseback - Crusaders in full battle dress, storming around the circumference of the pitch to the music of Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise. It was very emotive and set the scene for what was to follow.

The game was always going to be a challenge - almost an unofficial Test match.

The Crusaders are currently the best Super Rugby franchise and possibly one of the best club sides ever to play rugby.

They had won every game this season to date and boasted six All Blacks in the pack alone.

And in Israel Dagg they possess one of the most exciting, electric back three players to play the game.

We flew down to Christchurch the day after the Blues game, landing in an area surrounded on three sides by snow covered mountains and the sea on the other side.

An earthquake devastated Christchurch in 2011, but the way the community responded at the time and has since shown such resilience and spirit it is a glowing example to the rest of us.

They even built a shopping centre from old, stacked containers fully refurbished inside.

We visited during Rugby World Cup 2015 and one thing that is noticeable is there is a lot of building work going on but an awful lot still to do.

Locals estimate that it will take another 10 years to get the infrastructure back to normal. It is some task - but the locals have a top rugby team in the Crusaders to keep them smiling!

Built on plans drawn up in England on a river – the appropriately named River Avon - all of the original settlers are named on flagstones outside an old cathedral along with the name of one of eight ships they travelled on.

Unfortunately, this cathedral was irreversibly damaged during the quake. So what did the locals do?

They built a temporary cathedral from cardboard.

On the field, Saturday’s game was to be a significant step forward for the Lions.

The team played so much better and this allowed several players to put markers down for their Test side place.

The half-back partnership of Owen Farrell and Conor Murray worked really well and the front row grew stronger as the game went on with Jamie George growing in confidence.

The set piece was good but our open-field play was significantly improved from the previous game.

We coped very well with two injury disruptions to backs Jonathan Davies and Stuart Hogg early on in the game. Anthony Watson came on and showed some great footwork.

We probably left three or four potential tries on the field and the players are conscious of that.

We need to be more accurate in our execution and will improve as the boys become more familiar with each other’s style of play

The challenge for us as a coaching and medical team is that of the recovery of one team and preparing the next one amid a backdrop of changing location and hotel.

The logistics teams are in overdrive moving all the players and staff, plus all the equipment, every three or four days.

On to Dunedin...

Flying into Dunedin is pretty spectacular with the snow-covered mountains and hills to the right and the sea to the left. This is the oldest city in NZ and is called the ‘Edinburgh of the south’ – in fact Dunedin is the Gaelic for Edinburgh.

There is a very strong connection with Scotland here reflected in street names such as Princess Street to the way the place looks and feels. It boasts a Guinness Book of Records entry for the steepest ‘lived on’ street in the world, Baldwin Street– and it is a challenge to run up! It’s 350 metres long with a gradient of 35per cent!

Dunedin is situated at the base of the Otago Peninsular, which juts several miles out into the Pacific Ocean. At the end is a Royal Albatross colony and nesting ground. I have hired a motorbike and rode down to it a few times – a spectacular and amazing ride.

The Forsyth Barr stadium is

fully enclosed now – probably just as well as the weather can be pretty wet and windy here – and was built for the RWC 2015 to replace the former ‘Field of Pain’, Carisbrooke

The game against Highlanders on Tuesday night was played at pace, in front of a fervent crowd and the rain hammering down on the enclosed stadium roof.

I suspect this was a great game to watch as either a neutral or a Highlanders fan. It provided an example of why a team should not to stop playing until the final whistle. The Highlanders were pretty much out of the game at 22-13 with a quarter of an hour to go but they trusted their pace, skill and set piece scrum domination to gain field position and ultimately pinch the game right at the end.

It also was a stark reminder to our players that we must become more clinical in finishing off a game from such a dominant position.

Game management, field position and clinical ball retention is vital against these Southern Hemisphere teams. Small handling errors are punished. Coughing up turnover ball three times in the last 10 minutes cost us dearly, the last producing a penalty they kicked to win the game.

It was a lesson for us all building up to the first Test against the All Blacks on June 24.

I would just like to report that Courtney Lawes is fine following the concussion he sustained via an errant elbow to the head early in the game.

He was in good spirits on Wednesday morning and symptom free, which means he can start his ‘graduated return to play’ protocol.

If all goes well and he remains symptom free through the process then he will be available for selection for the Waikato Chiefs game and first Test week!

It is also nice to still be able to report that “good old fashioned” values still thrive in our game no matter what level it is played at.

After the Highlanders game, the opposition come into the changing room for a beer with their opposite number, a chat and exchange shirts. The non-players in the Lions squad all stayed to help clear the changing rooms and help with recovery – a real team effort.

Concussion protocol

As a side note, I thought I would explain the concussion protocol and Head injury Assessment (HIA) that can sometimes look a bit confusing to the rugby supporter.

A good example of how the system can work at its best was seen last Saturday after Jonathan Davies took a heavy contact during the first half of the game. Neither the doctor or I saw the actual incident, but as we arrived to assess JD, he appeared to just be a little winded but quite coherent.

While the doctor was asking him several questions to check he was okay, I used my radio to contact our third physio on the day, Bob Stewart.

He was acting as spotter and reviewing the incident up in the coaches’ box on a dedicated iPad with direct video feed and reply facility.

He saw no obvious indication that JD had been concussed so we allowed him to play on while monitoring him.

The match-day doctor also has a video replay facility and spent a little more time reviewing the incident.

He thought it was appropriate to call a HIA to exclude any possible head injury.

He then contacts our doctor and the player is removed for the 10-minute assessment to exclude concussion.

It is thorough and safe protocol and the best we have had in the game to date.

Phil Pask is a former Saints player and physiotherapist, and is the phyiso for the England and British & Irish Lions. He was senior physio on the 2005, 2009 and 2013 Lions tours. Phil is a partner at Witty, Pask & Buckingham Chartered Physiotherapists, based on Billing Road in Northampton