British & Irish Lions

British & Irish Lions on song ahead of ‘cracking’ All Blacks tests

Warren Gatland’s side arrive in Auckland ahead of gruelling 10-match schedule that includes three tests and seven tour matches

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 1:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 10:30pm

The British & Irish Lions arrived in New Zealand on Wednesday predicting a “cracking” series against the world champion All Blacks and hoping to avoid the controversies that marred their disastrous last tour 12 years ago.

Tattooed Maori warriors performed a haka to greet the composite team of elite players from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, marking the start of the nearly six-week tour.

The players then surprised their hosts by performing a stirring rendition of the Welsh hymn “Calon Lan”, in a response that won over the New Zealand public and media.

Coach Warren Gatland said it was a sign of respect and showed the Lions, who have won only one test series against the All Blacks in more than a century, were determined not to repeat the mistakes of their last visit in 2005.

That tour ended in acrimony and a 3-0 “Blackwash” for the hosts as the Lions succumbed to in-fighting, intense pressure and a string of high-profile injuries.

“We’re well aware that there’s a bit of bridge-building to do from 2005,” said Gatland, who is a New Zealander himself and earned 17 All Blacks caps from 1988 to 1991.

“If we can win some hearts and minds off the field and play some good rugby, then hopefully we’re going to end up with a cracking tour.”

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Gatland, who has described the New Zealand tour as the “ultimate challenge”, said he wanted to avoid off-field distractions.

“I don’t think any of us want any controversy to get in the way of what could potentially be a great test series, let’s get excited about that,” he said.

The Lions face a gruelling 10-match schedule that includes three tests and seven tour matches against New Zealand’s top rugby teams.

Former All Blacks and Lions coach Graham Henry has branded the itinerary “suicidal”, saying the Lions could be weakened by injury before they even face the All Blacks.

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Former England fly half Stuart Barnes, a Lions tourist in 1993, said winning the test series in such circumstances would be “epic”.

“It would be the greatest achievement of Northern Hemisphere rugby, it would eclipse England winning the World Cup in Australia [in 2003[,” he told Radio Sport on Wednesday.

The Lions will face an All Blacks team who are back-to-back world champions and have held top spot on the international rankings since 2009.

New Zealand underlined their recent dominance with a world-record equalling 18-test winning streak in 2015-2016, and coach Steve Hansen said this week there was still “plenty of room” for improvement.

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A glimmer of hope for the Lions lies in Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in Chicago last year, which ended the New Zealanders’ winning run.

Ireland lock Iain Henderson said the men in green “got under the All Blacks’ skin” in their shock 40-29 win and the Lions will aim to do the same in New Zealand.

Bookmakers are not confident such tactics will bring success, rating the Lions a 7/2 chance of winning the test series while the All Blacks are 1/5.

History also appears weighted against the tourists, who have won only one of 11 previous test series contested in New Zealand, when the John Dawes-led Lions battled to a 2-1 victory in 1971.

The Lions’ overall test record in New Zealand dating back to 1904 stands at six wins, three draws and 29 losses, a success rate of just 16 per cent.