By Gavin Mairs

Of all the yardsticks that reflect the frightening pace at which the game is played in New Zealand, the work-rate of the Lions scrum-halves is probably the most insightful.

The All Blacks showcased in the most intimidating fashion the high tempo game and breathtaking skill-set that is prominent across the country in their 12-try demolition of Samoa in Auckland on Friday night.

The Lions have their own hard data to reveal that perception is a stark reality, starting with the extra distance their scrum-halves must run during matches against New Zealand opposition in comparison to club games and even Six Nations contests.


Rhys Webb, who is poised to take his place on the bench for the first Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park next Saturday, was among a number who received extra conditioning work as the Ospreys scrum-half's domestic season reached the business end to prepare himself for the intense physical challenge of keeping up with the pace of the game down here.

Webb has already been running up to an extra 1.5 kilometres and losing up to four kilograms per game and on this tour - even before the Lions have faced the All Blacks.

"You know yourself that you are definitely running more - you've got different roles with the Lions than with the Ospreys and Wales," said Webb. "They're used to playing this high tempo game, and obviously we've got to control that, and then when it's on to play we come alive.

"You are probably looking at 4.5km a game for the Ospreys, maybe 5km with Wales, whereas with the Lions it's 5.5 to 6km. So, it's gone up again. And you probably lose about 2-4kg during a game, and some boys lose 6-8kg.

"That's why it's important on a tour like this that the boys do what they can to recover after a game. So we have ice baths, masseuses, and food and protein shakes, which is vital - and touch wood we haven't picked up many injuries or knocks."

The scrum-half's distance run reflects the longer time the ball is in play in New Zealand and the unstructured game as it is his responsibility to be at the foot of almost every breakdown.

It is a challenge that has left Webb in the best shape of his life.

"When you are with your regions you cover X amount of distance, and on a dual contract with Wales you have their top fitness coaches who give you the heads-up when it's coming towards the international period," Webb added. "It's so you get the required number of miles under your belt. It requires the individual to do an extra amount of training, either away from the club or after training.

"As a scrum-half you are naturally quite fit because of speed getting to the breakdown and getting that ball away as quick as you can. We've done quite a bit of it [high-tempo training], including being in match-day squads, and also the two weeks before coming over.

"I'm feeling very good. I'm feeling fresh, and we've got world-class backroom staff who do their best getting guys up to fitness. They've got 41 boys to look after, and it's down to the individual really how much they want it - and we've got a group that really want it."

The Lions know that, even with their extra conditioning work, to compete with the All Blacks they are going to have to limit the amount of unbroken play with a structured game plan to keep a lid on the speed of their attacking game.

"We knew it would be a different tempo game with the ball-in-play time a lot higher in Super Rugby than in the Premiership and Pro 12," Webb added. "They like to chuck it around, but we have talked about getting to grips with the game, controlling it, and playing at our tempo. Warren has picked a 41-man squad capable of doing special things, playing at this tempo and intensity, and with the accuracy and skill set to go with that. So, we are definitely up to speed."

The New Zealand public and the All Blacks remain sceptical however. There is a feeling that the Lions will simply not be able to contain the All Blacks machine that was given a light workout against Samoa.

There is pressure, too, off the field. Steve Hansen, the All Blacks head coach, has been trying to pick holes in the Lions' team ethos by suggesting that there is already a sense of Test and midweek teams developing, and that the influx of six new players will exaggerate the split.

Webb, however, insisted the Lions' spirit was as strong as ever, even with the defeats by the Auckland Blues and Otago Highlanders.

"The group is all smiles at the moment," Webb added. "We've got one goal at the end of the six weeks and we knew before we came out here it would be challenging. The defeats we've had have been by fine margins and the errors are easily fixable.

"There is certainly not any divide or two teams being picked. You obviously get the boys playing this weekend and then we have maybe the rest of the boys have a bit of a fitness session to replicate being involved in that game to make sure we are all on the same page leading into that recovery day on the Sunday.

"We are one for all and there is a real glue to the squad."