New Zealand swept up in Lions fever
All Blacks coach Graham Henry claims it will be the biggest event in New Zealand sporting history, the nation's major newspapers have published special supplements in its honour, it is the subject of a commemorative stamp issue, it has inspired at least three television documentaries and merchandise promoting it could fill several warehouses.
The All Blacks v British and Irish Lions series certainly excites New Zealand's rugby officials, media, advertising gurus, public relations company executives and retailers. What of the grass roots fans though? Often described as hard-bitten and taking international success for granted, what are their views on the matches and do they consider the hype surrounding them to be justified?
The MacGregor family reunion I attended at Lake Brunner on the South Island's rugged West Coast provided an ideal opportunity to ascertain the impressions of a broad section of rugby followers from throughout the country and from various backgrounds.
Several present trace their lineage back to Rob Roy, yet remarkably few dissidents were evident among the Antipodean branch of the clan these days. Almost unanimously they anticipate the games will be closely fought and the serious publicity to be fully warranted.
Christchurch businessman Syd Bradley expressed the majority belief when stating that: 'New Zealanders convinced the All Blacks will have an easy ride are in for a rude shock. I was astonished an Australian bookmaker was offering 9-1 against a Lions series win and put NZ$50 [$275] on immediately. I note the odds have shortened considerably since then as people realise the Lions are a genuine threat.'
Dunedin-based sickness beneficiary and former abattoir worker Evan Wilson agrees. 'The Lions' pack is extremely strong and the intensity of tackling in modern rugby is such that the two sides may cancel themselves out as attacking forces. If the results are decided by kicking, they have Jonny Wilkinson and there's no better kicker in the world than him.'
It is the absence of Andrew Mehrtens, rather than Wilkinson's presence, which worries Mark Tavendale. 'The All Blacks will miss Mehrts as their pivot,' the Christchurch lawyer laments. 'I doubt if any other first five-eighths [flyhalf] can stretch the Lions like him and that opens up the possibility of forward-dominated encounters. I suspect the tourists might have the edge there.'
Grant MacGregor, a North Otago farmer, is more optimistic, believing the Lions still rely a lot upon the victorious 1971 expedition for their aura. 'That side had Gareth Edwards, Barry John, JPR Williams, Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride; each a great player,' he recalls. 'Of the 2005 line-up, I rank only Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll alongside them. I don't accept they have the guns to beat the All Blacks. However, I look forward to some interesting contests.'
Alan Buchan of New Plymouth, now retired following a career as a local government officer, focuses on the quantity, not the quality of the Lions' personnel. 'With 45 in the party, I can't see how Sir Clive can possibly find his best combination. He'd need about 15 years to try out all possible permutations.'
Although nobody actually predicted a Lions victory, the expectation was the men wearing the silver fern would have to work hard to prevail. In fact, it was only on the journey home that I encountered anybody willing to forecast an All Blacks walkover.
Charlie Harrison, an Auckland-based tourist guide, insisted: 'The All Blacks proved they are head and shoulders above northern hemisphere selections by hammering France in Paris last year.
'The British produce a decent rugby team every 30 years. The Lions of the early 70s were undoubtedly an awesome unit. But the current mob consists largely of over-the-hill Englishmen and inexperienced Welshmen. I believe I'm right in saying the Lions have beaten the All Blacks just once in 10 series. That's similar to the success rate the Poms were enduring against America in the Ryder Cup golf tournament before they reinforced their squad with continental Europeans.
'I reckon rugby should do the same and add Frenchmen and Italians to the Lions. Make them a European selection. That'd make the fixtures really relevant.'