The British & Irish Lions have arrived in New Zealand intent on avenging a 3-0 drubbing on their last visit in 2005. History and a tough itinerary suggest they’ve got their work cut out for them.
A BRIEF HISTORY
New Zealand hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for the Lions. Ten* previous visits since 1904 have yielded just five Test wins, two of them in 1971 which remains their only series victory (2-1 with the fourth Test drawn). By contrast the All Blacks have recorded three clean sweeps (4-0 in 1966 and 1983, and 3-0 in 2005), also winning the 1950 series 3-0 with one match drawn.
In all New Zealand have won 27 of the 35 matches and eight of the nine series between the two (the 1904 visitors played just one match, on the way home after winning a series in Australia 3-0).
*Scotland and Ireland declined to take part in a 1908 tour and opinion is divided as to whether the “Anglo-Welsh” team that lost two and drew one Test should be regarded as a bona fide Lions team. The above statistics exclude that series.
Sat 3 Jun v Provincial Unions, Whangarei
Wed 7 Jun v Blues, Auckland
Sat 10 Jun v Crusaders, Christchurch
Tue 13 Jun v Highlanders, Dunedin
Sat 17 Jun v Maori All Blacks, Rotorua
Tue 20 Jun v Chiefs, Hamilton
SAT 24 JUN v ALL BLACKS, AUCKLAND
Tue 27 Jun v Hurricanes, Wellington
SAT 1 JUL v ALL BLACKS, WELLINGTON
SAT 8 JUL v ALL BLACKS, AUCKLAND
It was initially thought that the Blues, Crusaders, and Highlanders would have all their All Blacks available, but the scheduling of an All Blacks Test match with Samoa on 16 June will influence how many are released, and to a lesser degree the strength of the Maori All Blacks (Ben Smith has already said he’ll play Samoa rather than the Lions despite his contract giving him the option).
That said it’s still a daunting schedule. For many it will be the pinnacle of their career, for others possibly the launchpad for higher honours. Even the Provincial Unions XV, made up of non-Super Rugby players from each of the Mitre 10 Cup teams plus one from the Heartland Championship, will be no walk in the park.
Eden Park becomes the first New Zealand ground to host two Tests in the same series by virtue of it seating 50,000, some 15,500 more than Wellington’s Westpac Stadium, and at least 20,000 more than any other potential Test venue. The Lions only come to town every twelve years, and New Zealand Rugby is determined to cash in.
THE TOURING PARTY
Head Coach Warren Gatland (Wales) will be assisted by Rob Howley (Wales – backs), Steve Borthwick (England – forwards), and Andy Farrell (Ireland – defence). Sam Warburton (Wales) will become just the second man (after Martin Johnson) to captain two Lions teams. The full squad is:
Forwards: Rory Best (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), James Haskell (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Kyle Sinckler (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (c)(Wales)
Backs: Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Grieg Laidlaw (Scotland), Conor Murray (Ireland), George North (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Jared Payne (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Ben Te’o (England), Anthony Watson (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales).
Halfback Ben Youngs was initially named but withdrew for personal reasons, Grieg Laidlaw taking his place. Human wrecking ball No. 8 Billy Vunipola was a late injury withdrawal, replaced by veteran James Haskell. Gatland has said he expects to have to call on between six and ten replacements due to the attritional nature of the tour.
There are 15 English, 12 Welsh, 11 Irish, and three Scots players in the 41. Sir Clive Woodward brought 44 on the disastrous 2005 tour, while Gatland took 35 on the successful 2013 tour of Australia.
THE MATCH OFFICIALS
Just as a Lions series is one of the highlights of a player’s career (some have gone so far as to rate it above a World Cup due to their rarity), so it is for the match officials, too.
World Rugby have named Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Romain Poite (France), and Jerome Garces (France) to referee the three Tests, with the same three taking the Assistant Referee duties for the matches they’re not refereeing.
In Part Two: the likely makeup of the All Blacks, and the Lions tour match prospects.