What happened when the 2017 British & Irish Lions touched down in New Zealand
Stephen Jones has written a column in the current issue of Rugby World bemoaning the fact that too often coaches dominate the build-up to games with tit-for-tat comments directed at each other.
It’s an interesting read – pick up a copy if you haven’t already – and seems pertinent given that the British & Irish Lions arrived in New Zealand to find that Steve Hansen has said he would have rejected the tour schedule had it been presented to his All Blacks team.
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All Blacks coach Hansen believes arriving on a Wednesday and playing on a Saturday is a farcical situation for the Lions to find themselves in, telling The Times: “You’d want to be there a week minimum. It’s nicer to be longer than that. When we tour we have full control over when we leave the country.”
Hansen also suggested that the Lions should have sent the majority of their squad out to New Zealand at least a week earlier, with those involved in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 finals to follow later. Had that been the arrangement, the Lions’ farewell dinner on Sunday night would have been sparsely attended!
When Hansen’s comments were put to tour manager John Spencer, he responded by saying: “The schedule was set by the New Zealand Rugby Union – that’s a contractual thing and has been for many years. We don’t mind the schedule at all. The fact we’re playing the Super Rugby sides is exactly what the coaches want, to prepare sides for the Test. The thing we’re disappointed in on the domestic side is the preparation time. But that’s our lot, that’s what we have to react to.”
The schedule has long come under scrutiny – Rugby World has criticised the lack of preparation time from the off – but there’s little point debating it now. We all know they should have had at least two more weeks together as an entire squad before flying out but it’s doubtful that a similar situation will be avoided for the 2021 trip to South Africa, such is the self-interest of all the parties involved and the unwillingness to compromise.
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Sam Warburton provided a lighter note at the Lions’ first press conference on New Zealand soil. When asked about the traditional Maori welcome the Lions received at Auckland Airport, the captain quipped: “I have to be careful with the hongi because I’ve got a bigger nose than most people!”
The Lions responded with a rendition of Welsh hymn Calon Lan. They sang Scottish and Irish songs at Sunday’s farewell so perhaps there will be an English number during the welcome at Waitangi Treaty Grounds on Sunday. Choir practice is clearly paying off.
Warburton also revealed that “New Zealand is my favourite place to play rugby outside Wales”. He should get his first opportunity on this tour against the NZ Provincial Barbarians. The team will be named at 7am NZ time tomorrow, 8pm in the UK today, with the 14 players who originally convened with the squad two and a half weeks ago expected to make up the bulk of the starting XV.
As for the opposition, Warburton is well aware of one player – the boss’s son, Bryn Gatland. “I know their No 10 pretty well,” he said. “I’ve known Bryn for six or seven years, when he was first around the (Wales) squad. The Welsh lads know Bryn very well. He showed a lot of courage last year to kick the drop-goal to win (promotion for North Harbour). You have to give him credit for that, and he’s got a good bloodline as well.”
More familiar foe will follow after the Barbarians opener, and debates will continue to rage, but once the first whistle goes on Saturday night the rugby should rightly take centre stage.