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Long live the Lions





Excuse us if we seem a little distracted for the next five weeks, but we’ve got something on here.

The British and Irish Lions arrive this week, and are going to pretty much own the New Zealand landscape.

The beauty of the Lions is that they are one of the few things in rugby that hasn’t been totally over exposed by the evil greed of professionalism.

Sure, money rules like everything else, but they’re special because they only tour once every four years and you only get to host them every 12, and frankly it should stay that way. The gaps build interest and anticipation, and when you’re on the wrong side of 50 like I am, 12 years seems to go a hell of a lot quicker than it used to!

The tours are a lot different to what they used to be, and come with far more strings attached, because of the way the clubs own the players up north.

Gone are the days of the great tours when pretty much every province in the country would get some game time against the touring side…those tours would take over two months, but that ain't going to happen ever again, sadly.

Fact is, with the club bosses not really giving a fig about international rugby, we’re probably lucky we still have them at all.

The upcoming tour will be the shortest ever by a full Lions team to NZ, unless you count the five matches tacked onto an Australia trip in 1904, and that’s down to the club owners, but I can’t imagine the club owners will be any happier, given the relentless standard of opposition.

For the first time they will play New Zealand's five Super Rugby franchises. They won’t all be at full strength, with some All Blacks likely to be unavailable, but they will still offer up much stronger resistance than we saw from the provincial unions in 2005, one of which, Manawatu, was beaten by a hundred points.

But while it might seem this is a trap set by New Zealand, using the tour games to soften up the tourists ahead of the tests, it is actually what the Lions wanted, the feeling being that the provincial games 12 years ago, apart from the Maori All Black match in Hamilton which was lost, did not provide the level of opposition required to prepare the side for the tests against an All Black team at its peak.

It is a bit sad that the Lions will only be seen fleetingly outside the main centres. I recall with great fondness the excitement generated in particular by the visit of the great 1971 side to my home province Marlborough for a match against a combined Nelson/Marlborough team, which now takes permanent shape in the form of the Tasman Makos.

But the fact is this is the biggest money spinner outside of the World Cup, and they have to go where the most cash can be made. Practical, but not altogether to the liking of a traditional rugby tragic like myself!

So what chance the Lions can win just their second series in New Zealand?

The team they have chosen appears to be very much dependent on a powerful and quite mobile forward pack gaining an edge.

If New Zealand can deny that edge, then they have the backs to take the Lions.

The first test will be crucial, when the All Blacks have not had so much time together. If the Lions can win that then its game on, if not then the odds have to favour a third sweep in four tours.

Injuries will play a big part. Traditionally it’s the touring team that gets harder hit, but there are some question marks over a number of All Blacks right now, most notably Dane Coles, who has been unable to train because of lingering concussion symptoms.

Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino, Nehe Milner Skudder and Scott Barrett are others racing the clock to be fit, while Sonny Bill Williams appeared to tweak a knee at the weekend and Beauden Barrett was sidelined as a precaution after a couple of headaches in South Africa.

There has been a degree of caution about any injured All Blacks, but the team for the first test should still be very strong.

It promises to be a great series, and, with thousands of Lions fans heading this way, a lot of fun off the field as well.

We just hope that it won’t be the last time we see them, because some of those club owners would do away with the Lions at the drop of their ten gallon hats.

There has been a lot of looking back on the 2005 tour, understandably from the Lions perspective, as to what went wrong, and how they can learn from it.

There is no question that Clive Woodward, having been such an outstanding success with England, tried to take things to another level, and succeeded in over cooking pretty much every aspect.

His manner, and in particular his choice of political spin doctor Alistair Campbell as his media man, irritated Kiwis no end, and just made it so much harder to strike any chord with the New Zealand public.

The tour blew up over the Brian O’Driscoll incident, a situation that was badly handled by both teams, but at a time when New Zealanders were feeling extremely uncomfortable about what had happened to the Lions skipper, Woodward and Campbell made such a production of their response that they succeeded only in riling both the public and the All Blacks, who responded with one of the great test match displays in history in the second test.

Woodward ended the tour by saying the only thing he would change would be to base the team in Melbourne and fly them over for the games....a final, petulant shot that had us thinking “Okay then Clive, see you later, thanks for coming”.

I think it’s a reason why they’ve gone for Warren Gatland, a man who knows how to make a Lions team work, a man not afraid of making a big selection call, a man who understands the Kiwi psyche and who know he will need to come across with humility, a quality Woodward simply did not appear to possess.

Hopefully it will be a tour played free of controversy this time, although that may be asking for too much in a day and age when the media will attempt to create it, even if there is none.

********************

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the Bulls have invested in John Mitchell as the man to guide them out of the dark times, the dark ages, even.

There is little question that the outstanding Lions side we see today owes something to the work Mitchell did in laying the foundations.

Mitch is a unique individual, a man with rugby running through his veins and with an unquenchable desire to improve and succeed. He also has his own way of doing business and it hasn’t always made for smooth sailing with his players, his employers and the media.

He will rub people up the wrong way in his new role for sure, but the Bulls have no choice but to rip it up, start again, and buy into what he is doing.

Mitchell has spent a good few years in South Africa now and has clearly developed a connection.

For what it’s worth, I reckon they have made an excellent choice.

Finally some bullet points from a weekend that pretty much confirmed what we already knew about the Super Rugby playoffs.

· The Sharks are starting to appeal as a dark horse, their win over the Stormers evidence that, while they’re not going to win any beauty prizes, they’re getting pretty good at doing what they do. Doing it consistently is the key.

· The Stormers may be a guaranteed home quarter finalist but have lost momentum with only one win in the last 6 games, and even that owed much to fortune.

· The Hurricanes won in Pretoria without having to get out of third gear for much of the game. They will need their forward pack to be at full strength if they’re to win back to back titles, but are on the verge of two try scoring records, needing just three more to eclipse the 81 scored last year by the Lions. Their young centres Vince Aso and Ngani Laumape are closing in on the season record of 15 tries jointly held by Joe Roff and Rico Gear.

· It was the Highlanders turn to get lucky with the refereeing this week, their first try against the Waratahs awarded when video evidence suggested Richard Buckman was, just, offside. There were also complaints about the sin binning of Dean Mumm, but they got that one dead right.

· The Crusaders are still the team to beat, no matter how impressive the Lions have been. The only question might be how the (other) Lions series impacts of them.

· The draw between the Chiefs and Blues did neither team any good. On top of their loss to the Stormers, it wasn’t enough to keep the Blues in the hunt, while the Chiefs slip down to fourth in the New Zealand conference, which, if they stay there, will mean a trip to either Johannesburg or Christchurch.

· I know the Sunwolves care about Super Rugby, but the way the Jaguares are playing suggests they do not, and are just using the competition to keep their test team together. If that’s the case then maybe they should be getting the boot ahead of the Cheetahs, Force or Kings, all of whom have demonstrated pride in what they’re doing.

· The Blues are eliminated despite having more points than two teams guaranteed a home quarterfinal. That is just plain ridiculous.


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