Is this the beginning of the mind games? With just over four weeks to go until the Lions play their first match against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on June 3, we can fully expect a war of words to emerge between both camps over the coming weeks.
The use of the word ‘targeting’ in rugby can often be misconstrued. Players receive this sort of attention all the time and it is a part of the game which has been prevalent from the beginning.
And why not? If there is a key player(s) on the opposition side, then it would make sense to put him under as much pressure as possible to negate the influence which he has on his side.
We have seen this countless times this season be it in the PRO12, the Premiership or at Test level. However, it’s when this ‘targeting’ goes too far and becomes borderline illegal play that the referee needs to step in and protect the players.
We all remember Simon Zebo and Robbie Henshaw being on the receiving end of some brutal hits in the second Test match between Ireland and New Zealand in November. Again, Conor Murray’s standing leg was targeted dangerously in Munster’s Champions Cup clash with Glasgow Warriors in Scotstoun.
So when the Lions play the All Blacks or even the Kiwi Super Rugby sides, their players could receive this sort of attention but it will be interesting to see whether the referee at the time can get a handle on proceedings.
One player who Warren Gatland believes could be targeted is Maro Itoje. Itoje is likely to be one of the starting locks in the Test side to face the All Blacks and you only have to see his performances for Saracens and England to realise the level of influence he can have on a match.
In addition to this, Itoje, relatively speaking, is inexperienced so he could prove to be the ideal candidate for some extra special attention.
“He could be a player they may target and I’ll be interested to see how he responds to that,” Gatland told Sky Sports.
“They might see him as potentially a key for the Lions and see if they can shut him down, or physically dominate him.
“He’s going to have to learn from that.”
There is no doubt that Gatland will prepare Itoje as best he can for what will be a grueling Test series but when it comes down to it, how the youngster reacts to what are the toughest environments in world rugby will be key in the outcome of the series.