The British and Irish Lions are on their way to New Zealand.
But are they on the way to immortality or will the All Blacks simply prove too strong? Huge numbers of Lions supporters are headed out and much more will be glued to early morning TV sets. The Lions arrive in Auckland following a stopover in Melbourne and will make the 100-mile journey north to Whangarei on Friday for the first warm-up game. There they will play the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in the Toll Stadium. They go full of optimism while being well aware of the monumental task ahead of them three Tests against the best side in the world.
Warren Gatland has described his role as
“the biggest job in world rugby against the best opposition”. Saracens fly-half Owen Farrell has declared it “a massive challenge”.
Undoubtedly the Lions have a great squad but they have been asked to take on a 10-match tour against almost impossible odds. They flew out less than 48 hours after the Aviva Premiership and Guinness PRO12 finals, with a number of stars tired and beaten up. Irish legend Paul O’Connell has raised fears that the Lions have not been given enough preparation time
He told the Daily Telegraph:
“It is a pity they weren’t given more of a chance to prepare. It will be the strongest Lions squad for a very long time.
“I think they can win the series because of the quality of the players. If Ireland can beat New Zealand in Chicago why can’t a combination of the very best players from the four home nations do it? It is just very challenging – the schedule, the lack of preparation means it is going to be very tough.”
It has only been done once by a Lions side, in 1971. That was a Welsh-dominated triumph, with Gareth Edwards and Barry John leading the way on the field of play, John Dawes captaining the team splendidly and Carwyn James the inspirational coach. Yet at the outset critics condemned the squad as hopeless and undoubtedly the worst team in history to be sent to New Zealand. Numerous other Lions teams have had a go Down Under since. None of them has succeeded in the way the class of ‘71 managed. The Welsh contingent included Gerald Davies, JPR Williams, John Bevan, Mervyn Davies, Derek Quinnell and John Taylor. England, Ireland and Scotland contributed David Duckham, John Pullin and Peter Dixon, Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride, Fergus Slattery, Ian McLauchlan and Gordon Brown to the cause.
In those days Lions tours were a massive undertaking, featuring 26 matches.
“We were also lucky because of the weather, it hardly rained, and enabled us to play the game we wanted to play.
“But we did have a great camaraderie between the players. It was a happy tour and players who stepped in for injured players during the tour didn’t weaken the side.”
If there was one player who established his reputation and became rugby’s first world superstar it was Barry John. The Wales fly-half was imperious, exhibiting all his craft, guile and courage. John would be dubbed ‘the King’ in New Zealand and some, despite the likes of Dan Carter, still regard John as the greatest No. 10 to have played the game. The Lions would win the Tests 2-1, drawing the final one in Auckland before they headed home as returning heroes. So why does Dawes think the Lions have never won a Test series in New Zealand since ‘71?
“I think that is more to do with the attitude in British and Irish sport, I am afraid to say,” said Dawes.
“We showed it could be done and got the monkey off the back, so to speak, but these days everybody expects every Lions side to win. “Sport just isn’t like that. It was a special time, a special team and a special group of people in ‘71.”
This Lions team – a million miles in rugby terms from that amateur era – has the ability to be another special team.
Can they do it?
The omens aren’t great but the hope is eternal.
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