A few reasons why the match held one week before the first Test of the Lions tour cannot be taken lightly
“They were more aggressive than us at the breakdown, they were more aggressive than us all over the pitch.” Paul O’Connell surmised after the British & Irish Lions lost to the New Zealand Maori, 19-13 in Hamilton, in 2005. Sir Clive Woodward was in a charitable mood after that game, too, saying: “It’s not nice to lose but if the Lions had come back it would have been an injustice to the Maori.”
It was the first official victory against the Lions for the side – now known as the Maori All Blacks – although records suggest that there was an unofficial match went the way of the Maori back in 1904. Their team that day in 2005 was packed with star names. Leon MacDonald, Rico Gear, Luke McAlister, Caleb Ralph, Piri Weepu, Carl Hayman, Jono Gibbes and Marty Holah all started, while one Carlos Spencer lurked on the bench. Theirs was a side brimming with Test quality and a whole lot of hunger.
Now, in 2017, the Lions will face the Maori in Rotorua, exactly one week before the first Test against the All Blacks, in Auckland on 24 June.
We know that games a week before the first Test can earn players a spot in the Test team. In 2009 Tommy Bowe cemented his place in the Test side with a storming display against Western Province, while in 2005 Ryan Jones – called on tour as a replacement – did so much against Otago he made himself a big part of the coaches’ plans.
But caution is needed for one other reason: the All Blacks have announced that they will release players from their 33-man squad who are deemed surplus to requirements before a warm-up Test against Samoa, and who qualify for the Maori, will be released to play the Lions in Rotorua.
Last year, while in Chicago, New Zealand released Elliot Dixon, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Rieko Ioane, Damian McKenzie and Kane Hames to play for the Maori against the USA. There will be plenty of familiar faces in the squad anyway – Liam Messam, for example, is hotly tipped to play a role for the Maori – but it is worth noting that all three All Blacks scrum-halves are eligible.
In 2005 the match against the Maori was billed as a ‘fourth Test’. Will Warren Gatland and his men treat this match with the same level of respect or will they sacrifice this game, so close to the big first Test at Eden Park?
Note: In the past, the heritage of some selected for the Maori may not have been strictly checked, but the All Blacks insist that now all players must have Maori whakapapa or genealogy confirmed in order to represent the side.