Auckland - The
British and Irish Lions arrived in New Zealand Wednesday predicting a
"cracking" series against the world champion All Blacks and hoping to
avoid the controversies of 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
"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."
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" but Lions tour manager John Spencer said it was not
"It would be a pointless exercise coming to New Zealand, the best
team in the world, and trying to play them having played mediocre
opposition," he said, with his only concern that they were "trying to
fit six weeks' preparation into a couple of weeks".
Former England flyhalf 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.
Lions captain Sam Warburton expressed relief to finally be in New Zealand after so much talk about the tour.
He said the Lions priority was to win, particularly the Test series,
and he was unconcerned what style of play they adopted to get results.
"I don't care how we win, if we won every game 3-0 I'd bite your arm off," he said.
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
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.
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
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
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