Lions roar into town

Warren Gatland at Dunedin Airport.
Warren Gatland at Dunedin Airport.
Dunedin, Otago and the South welcomes the British and Irish Lions and their supporters.

The tours are only every 12 years or so and are all the more special for that.

Combining the best of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland gives the team a potential talent pool to give the All Blacks a thorough examination — even on occasions a beating as those who remember the 1971 team can attest.

Other factors, of course, come into play, including the leadership and the cohesion.

Last time, in 2005, the series was embarrassingly one-sided as the All Blacks taught the Lions a lesson in playing rugby at pace.

That was again the prediction for this tour as the players stumbled against the fired-up Barbarians not long after disembarking from their flight. 

While the Blues backs had enough to snatch victory in Auckland, the character of the visitors was evident  as they  snuffed out the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday night.

The 12-3 score flattered the Crusaders and the margin could easily have been far wider. The Lions played to their strengths, and why not.  Kick, probe on the blindside, rush up on defence, kick goals, slow the game down.  The All Blacks, far too skilled as prevailing wisdom would have it, will now be most concerned.  Too many top players are injured or just coming back from injury.  It is game on.

Supposedly, too, the Lions facing all the Super Rugby franchises and Maori All Blacks made for an impossible tour.  Instead,  the Lions are getting their wish and will hit the first test battle-hardened.  They once were suckered into played weak South African opposition and were not ready for the rigours of the tests.

It is the turn of the Highlanders tomorrow night, missing a posse of All Blacks and Maori All Blacks.  Thanks, however, to the dreadful run of early season injuries the player depth is reasonable and the Lions, minus some of their very best, could be stretched in the fast, dry Forsyth Barr Stadium conditions. There will be much interest in centre Malakai Fekitoa, a fine All Black left out of the test squad.  He certainly has a point to prove.  Waisake Naholo, meanwhile, will be playing for a test starting berth on the wing.

Judging by the attitude so far and at Dunedin Airport last night, and putting to one side coach Warren Gatland’s at times testiness, this Lions team is more open and friendlier than in 2005.  That year the Lions cancelled activities planned around the region before the game against Otago at Carisbrook.  They had earlier promised the tour was as much about connecting with people as it was about rugby but withdrew into their shell.  Clive Woodward’s squad was fiercely regulated and failed to fire.

The Highlanders might be an expression of the next rugby tier below tests and is certainly not Otago.  But it is the closest we can go on this tour as we reflect on Otago’s amazing record against the Lions.  They won five contests from 1908, including the stirring 37-24 win in 1993.  One of the tries, with halfback Stu Forster prominent and finished off by winger Paul Cooke, was an absolute beauty.  Another came to Dave Latta from a near 40m rolling maul.

Now it is the turn of the 2017 pride.

Expect a roar from the stadium, whatever the result.

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