We report on the Lions' official Maori welcome in Waitangi and pick a potential starting XV for the second game against the Blues
Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is gift – that is why we call it the present.
So said our guide at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. And today really was a gift, watching 300 Maori warriors officially welcome the 2017 British & Irish Lions to New Zealand.
The Lions would no doubt be happy to consign yesterday’s underwhelming 13-7 win over NZ Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei to history but today’s spectacle an hour north is something the entire touring party will long treasure.
Even watching from the sidelines as a member of the media you felt part of something truly special. The traditions and passion involved in Maori ceremonies always engage the audience, but the sheer numbers involved at Waitangi and the sense of occasion raised the bar. The weather delivered too, blue sky and sunshine a stark contrast to the teeming rain of 24 hours earlier.
“We had quite a few Maori welcomes for the 2011 World Cup and Wales toured here last summer, but that was like nothing I’ve experienced before. It was brilliant,” said Lions captain Sam Warburton. “The day and the setting made it even more special. Off the field, that’s one of the best experiences I’ve had through rugby.”
The Lions made an impact too, performing their four tour songs – Calon Lan, Highland Cathedral, Jerusalem and The Fields of Athenry – in reply to the Maori welcome. “The choir delivered,” smiled Warburton.
SIGN OF RESPECT
Lions tour manager John Spencer spoke of the privilege of experiencing such a welcome and of showing “respect and friendship” to the Maori people. The crowd at Toll Stadium on Saturday night didn’t show quite the same level of respect to the Lions!
“This is the worst Lions team ever.” “Why isn’t Susan Boyle playing at full-back?” “You’re worse than the 2005 Lions.”
Those are just three examples of things fans shouted from the seats behind the press box as the Lions struggled to see off the Barbarians side. It takes a lot to earn the respect of New Zealanders when it comes to rugby and the Lions have a long way to go to achieve that particular goal set by coach Warren Gatland.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
The issues in terms of jet lag and a lack of preparation time are well documented but their first opponents were a scratch side too, only training together for a week before running out in front of an expectant crowd in Whangarei.
The tourists will have been disappointed not to have dominated the opener physically, failing to assert themselves at the set-piece or the contact area, and while their intent in attack was clear – playing fast and wide – they lacked accuracy. The All Blacks are known for their ruthless edge so the Lions must become clinical in the coming weeks if they are to have a chance in the Test series.
INTO THE BLUES
Next up are Tana Umaga’s Blues. The Auckland-based franchise have been inconsistent in Super Rugby this season; they have won half of their 14 games to date, losing six and drawing one, and are the worst performing Kiwi team.
Gatland has already talked of the threat the Blues pose physically, so what team should he pick for the game at Eden Park on Wednesday? It will be a completely different starting XV and here’s a potential line-up for game two…
Liam Williams; George North, Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Jack Nowell; Dan Biggar, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Ken Owens, Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Peter O’Mahony (capt), Sean O’Brien, CJ Stander.
First, with his key leadership figures all playing against the Barbarians, it looks like a choice between Owens and O’Mahony as captain. We’re tipping the Irishman to edge it as Owens focuses on his return from injury.
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There are familiar combinations up front with the all-Irish back row and English/Saracens engine room, while half-backs Murray and Biggar have been rooming together. In midfield the arcing break and kicking game of Daly, the only replacement not to make it onto the field on Saturday, would complement the power of Henshaw.
Williams is one of the best operators under the high ball in the squad – an area where the Lions struggled in the first game – while Nowell and North are danger men out wide.
We’ll see how close (or wrong!) we are when Gatland names his team to play the Blues tomorrow, but whoever runs out at Eden Park knows there needs to be a significant improvement in performance.