A HELL OF A TOUR
Across six weeks, they will take on seven brutal tour fixtures and three Tests against the best team in the world. In the words of head coach Warren Gatland it is “a hell of a tough tour”.
Gatland is coming in on the back of a win in Australia in the previous Lions Tour in 2013 but the scale of the task in New Zealand is incredible. History offers them little hope. The All Blacks have won the past two Rugby World Cups and in the context of Lions Tours have generally smashed all those who have washed up on their shores. The Lions are pursuing their first Test series win in New Zealand since 1971 and on their last visit, in 2005, they suffered a 3-0 ‘blackwash’. In all, there have been 11 Lions tours to New Zealand stretching back to 1904 and that 1971 win stands as the only victory.
Gatland named a 41-man squad and his Wales skipper Sam Warburton will lead the Lions in the three Test matches. The squad is comprised of 16 Englishmen, 12 from Wales, 11 from Ireland and two from Scotland. Perhaps the biggest name to miss out is England’s victorious Six Nations captain Dylan Hartley. Regarding the Welsh contingent, there have been suggestions, particularly in Scotland, that Gatland has shown a touch too much favouritism to the country he has coached since 2007. There could be a degree of merit to the claims, considering Wales finished fifth in the Six Nations this year. On that basis, it is hard to make an argument for great form. Of those Welshmen selected, Ross Moriarty, Jonathan Davies and Dan Biggar were far from certainties.
An interesting aspect of the squad announcement, and one which reflects the brutality Gatland is expecting, is the sheer size of the travelling party. Gatland had intended to bring 37 players but switched to 41 to cater for what he anticipates will be a spate of injuries. “If you look at the midweek games we’ve got the Super Rugby champions (the Hurricanes), the Highlanders who won it the year before, the Chiefs and the Blues - it’s going to be incredibly tough,” Gatland said.
“Our original thoughts were to pick a squad of 37, but we looked at previous tours and you lose six to ten players through injury. So we decided to pick a slightly extended squad to compensate for what we know is going to happen in terms of injuries, and as much as possible protect that 23 going into the first Test.”
Provincial Union XV v Lions
Blues v Lions
Crusaders v Lions
Highlanders v Lions
New Zealand Maori v Lions
Chiefs v Lions
New Zealand v Lions
Hurricanes v Lions
New Zealand v Lions
New Zealand v Lions
Toll Stadium, Whangarei
Eden Park, Auckland
AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
International Stadium, Rotorua
Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
First Test, Eden Park, Auckland
Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Second Test, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Third Test, Eden Park, Auckland
Warburton is captain (of course). But what can we expect from the Lions against the mighty All Blacks: a roar or a whimper? Our Sports Editor Riath Al-Samarrai has the lowdown
The squad has been announced, the fixtures set, the battle lines drawn. At the end of May, the British and Irish Lions will board a flight for New Zealand and face the toughest assignment in rugby.
“Warburton was in a supermarket car park… when Gatland called”
got to earn
Warburton becomes only the second man to captain the Lions in back-to-back tours, after England’s Martin Johnson in 1997 and 2001. Warburton was in a supermarket car park while his wife was buying bread and milk when Gatland called to offer him the role.
It truly is a bone-crunching schedule. The Lions will play games against five Super Rugby franchises and New Zealand Maori, as well as three Tests. The Tour opener, against the Provincial Barbarians, is the only game of the lot that is considered to be straightforward. The attrition rate in those extremely tough and physical non-Test fixtures could be the deciding factor in how the Lions get on in the three big ones.
Former Wales coach Graham Henry, who led the Lions in 2001 and won the World Cup with New Zealand, believes the schedule could break the Lions. He recently told ESPN: “I just wonder if the itinerary is suicidal. That is my concern. They are playing New Zealand Maori, they are playing the five franchised teams… those five franchised teams have nothing to lose, no pressure on them at all, so they will fire everything at the Lions and take them on. Hopefully the Lions have the ability to overcome that. But really when you tour, you need to ensure some momentum is created by results and you just wonder how they are going to go into the Test series with that itinerary. It is very demanding.”
The Lions play the first and third Test in Auckland, where New Zealand have not lost since 1994.
The attention to detail
Given the challenges on the field, Gatland wants to minimise the opposition they face off it. That means they will go on a hearts and minds mission, which will include learning the local culture and presenting a respectful front where possible.
Gatland explained: “We have got to earn some respect from the New Zealand public. There are a few bridges to build from 2005. So it’s important to get things right off the field with the community stuff, in schools and hospitals, and to play some positive rugby to win the public over. A lot of teams that arrive in New Zealand aren’t prepared for the stuff off the field and aren’t prepared culturally. I saw that at the World Cup in 2011. I will say to the players to go and watch a couple of New Zealand films, like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, with Sam Neill, maybe Whale Rider or Boy. It’s about getting an understanding of the country, the people and the humour, which is a little bit different. If you can understand New Zealand, the intensity of the place, the opposition, it makes us potentially a bit better prepared.”
The cuddly toy thing
You will notice a fluffy lion gets plenty of media attention throughout the Tour. That is Bil (an acronym for British and Irish Lions) and he will be in the care of the squad’s youngest player, as per tradition. This time that falls to Maro Itoje, 22. The routine dates back decades. Itoje will have to transport Bil throughout the tour and any errors will lead to punishments or fines. In the past that has meant calling up your club’s director of rugby in front of the entire squad and demanding the captaincy next season.
Gatland actually played against the Lions when Waikato beat them 38-10 in 1993. He scored a try.
The family affair
Gatland’s son Bryn has been named in the Provincial Barbarians squad to face the Lions in the tour opener on June 3. The British & Irish Lions take on Provincial Union XV on June 3rd in the first game of the tour. The first Test is June 24th.