Gerry Thornley: A Lions tour to New Zealand has never looked tougher
All Blacks form and gruelling itinerary presents what seems an impossible task
All Black captain Kieran Read performs the haka during the International Test match between New Zealand and Wales at Eden Park last June. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Isa Nacewa played for Auckland in the penultimate game of the last British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005 tour, when a late Ronan O’Gara penalty sealed a 17-13 win for the tourists in Eden Park.
“Rog kicked a monster goal from about 45 metres near the sideline that night,” Nacewa recalls. “I remember Steve Devine telling us about five minutes beforehand ‘lads, if we win this match, we’re going to have a re-union every 10 years with free piss for the rest of our lives.’ And we bloody lost that game. It’s one I regret.”
“The Lions won every midweek game, but they didn’t play any franchises. They played all provincial teams. Between the first two tests, they beat Manawatu 109-6, when Hayden Triggs played. You’re not going to get that luxury against these franchises. That’s what’s daunting.”
Indeed, 12 years ago, in addition to the three-test series and a meeting with the New Zealand Maoris (all of which they lost), the Lions played and beat seven provincial sides.
Nothing about the intervening dozen years remotely suggests the All Blacks and the Maoris will be any less challenging this time around. But instead of playing seven provincial sides, the Lions will play all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises, and with an added pep in their step, they’re cutting a swathe through the competition like never before.
The Lions, with little or no preparation time en bloc, begin their 10-match tour against a Provincial Barbarians side next Saturday in Whangarei. Graham Henry, who has coached the Lions and against them, has described the itinerary as “suicidal”. Matt Williams, the former Leinster, Ulster and Scotland coach, returned from a recent visit to New Zealand and tweeted: “Just Back from NZ. The genuine feeling is the Kiwis hope the Lions can win their first game otherwise they will be winless. NZ is powerful.”
Consider the following. The Crusaders have won 12 from 12, the Hurricanes and Chiefs nine each from 11 games, and the Highlanders nine from 12. Even the Blues, with six wins from 12 and the Lions’s first midweek opposition, have a better record than any of the Australian sides. Indeed, cumulatively, the New Zealand sides have won 18 out of 18 against Australian sides, 11 from 13 against South Africans and four out of four against the rest.
“That shows you how good the New Zealand franchises are,” says Nacewa. “The Crusaders are unbeaten. The Chiefs and Hurricanes are playing unbelievably. The Highlanders are just starting to hit their straps. There’s going to be a Blues team that are going to field all their fringe All Blacks. The biggest challenge for this Lions squad is that they are playing five high-quality franchises. There is no walk in the park in any of these games. Plus the New Zealand Maoris. That’s their biggest game in 12 years, and they will train hard and they will train well for it.”
“Who’s going to be in the Blues backline? It could be Augustine Pulu, Piers Francis, Sonny Bill Williams, George Moala, Rieko Ioane, Rene Ranger, and they’re all going to be released to play. So in my eyes, that will be the Lions’s biggest challenge, playing those franchises when they’re playing awesome rugby, high-paced rugby. So it’s going to be a bloody tough tour for the Lions guys.”
For his part, Henry was specifically concerned as to the Lions state of mind and body come the first test, four days prior to which the tourists play the Chiefs, who beat Wales 40-7 last June.
Furthermore, if anything, the All Blacks have improved since retaining the World Cup in 2015, by seamlessly overcoming the retirements of Keven Mealamu, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Mana Nonu and Conrad Smith among others, with the likes of Dane Coles, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Anton Lienart-Brown and Ryan Crotty already fully fledged internationals by the time they became mainstays.
In last year’s Rugby Championship, they won six out of six, scoring 38 tries to five, and 262 points to 84, and played some of the most skilful, high tempo and inventive rugby ever seen. And even allowing for their rivals customary post-World Cup dips, this was home and away against Australia, South Africa and Argentina.
Conventional wisdom has it that to have any chance of winning the series the Lions probably have to win the first test. “You gotta win that first test,” ventured England coach Eddie Jones, never shy of an opinion or two, after the Six Nations. “The first test is winner take all. If you don’t win that you’re out of the series. I’m sure Warren knows that.”
Gatland was inclined to agree alright, but the last time the All Blacks lost on home soil was against South Africa in Hamilton 2009, when the Springboks won 32-29. Their 37-10 win over Australia last October was their 45th successive home win since that aforementioned defeat. Furthermore, the first test is in the All Blacks’s Eden Park fortress, where they haven’t lost since France won 23-20 in 1994. They drew their next test at Eden Park a few weeks later against the Springboks, and in the intervening 23 years have rattled off 36 consecutive victories.
To put the scale of the Lions task into further perspective, they have managed just one series win in 11 attempts in New Zealand, back in 1971, and in 38 tests there have won only six of them, while drawing another three.
But they are headed by a former All Black who has played against the Lions, who brings a wealth of knowledge from two previous odysseys as assistant and head coach, and has coached in Ireland, England and Wales in a trophy-laden career.
It is, as Gatland contends, assuredly a stronger squad than four years ago, with plenty of set-piece strength and ball carriers up front, a close eye on impact benches, an array of goal-kickers and both pace and footwork in the outside backs. Even so, Paddy Powers odds of 3/1 on them winning the series, with the All Blacks 2/9 favourites, don’t look especially appealing.
Looking ahead to the tour, captain Sam Warburton this week said: “I can’t wait to get out there to be honest. I’m not going to be naïve. I know it’s going to be more under the microscope perhaps than it was four years ago. Four years ago I remember walking around Melbourne and people were asking me who the Lions were, and these were Australians. I know there’s not going to be anywhere in New Zealand that that question is going to be asked. Everybody will know who we are and what we’re doing, and it’ll feel like there won’t be too much space out there.
“But that’s great. That’s all part of it. If you were asking me in my career which Lions tour could I pick to go on out of any of them, if I could pick one I’d pick New Zealand, because it’s New Zealand. So I’m really excited about it and personally can’t wait.”
It is indeed the ultimate challenge, and never more so than for this tour.