Party piece is over. From now on everybody wants Lions’ scalp

Tana Umaga, the centrepiece of one of the most contentious incidents in Lions history, wants to be the first New Zealand coach on this tour to claim a Lions scalp, and that will to win will continue everywhere the tourists travel, writes Donal Lenihan.
Party piece is over. From now on everybody wants Lions’ scalp

The less experienced members of the Lions tour party must already be wondering whether they are on a rugby tour or one gigantic public relations exercise given the number of non-rugby events they have been asked to partake in since their arrival in New Zealand.

The one non-negotiable event, which has been part and parcel of Lions tours since the first outing to the country back in 1888, is the traditional Maori welcome, complete with waggling tongues, Tao’s (Maori spears) flaying, the taonga offered by a Maori elder which was duly accepted by the tour captain Sam Warburton. And, of course, the Haka.

By the time they finish the tour, this squad will be sick to the teeth of the Haka. It will be everywhere, on every school visit, every reception, across the street once the kids recognise you as a member of the Lions, it is in your face everywhere you go.

It was confirmed yesterday that all the Super Rugby sides will also perform individually customised versions before each game which, in many ways, will serve to reduce its significance and impact on the visitors prior to the Test series.

The opening game against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians last Saturday was billed as a pleasant joust to ease the tourists into competitive action and unlikely to bear any resemblance to what’s coming down the tracks, starting with the game early this morning against the Auckland Blues.

What transpired last Saturday offered a stark reality check to all concerned as the Lions struggled to impose themselves against an inexperienced squad who, despite very limited exposure to top provincial rugby, highlighted how every young player in New Zealand is so adept at the basics of the game in terms of passing, kicking and decision making under pressure.

With so much planning gone into this tour, it is clear that the majority of that, at least at the outset of the trip, has been centred around the commercial circus that has unfortunately become part and parcel of this great rugby tradition.

Expecting players to perform three days after arriving in the host nation was always a risk, one which backfired.

The Lions party may have launched the tour with a charm offensive from the moment they arrived, with a chorus of that great Welsh hymn Calon Lan, and will continue to make friends by visiting schools and children’s hospitals over the course of their stay.

That’s all very commendable and laudable but if it is respect you’re after in New Zealand, there is only one place to get it - over 80 minutes on the field of play.

With so little preparation time, it was pretty impressive to see the Irish, English and Scottish contingent singing in the Welsh language even if some of the late arrivals to the party did a good job at miming the words.

However, that is the last opportunity for bluffing on this tour.

After Saturday’s supposedly gentle opener in Whangarei, the margin for error has narrowed considerably starting with today’s clash against the fifth rated Super Rugby franchise in New Zealand.

Auckland Blues’ coach Tana Umaga, the centrepiece of one of the most contentious incidents in Lions history with that spear tackle on Brian O’Driscoll 12 years ago, set the ground rules for all the provincial sides by resting eight of his front line players when the Blues faced the Queensland Reds in Samoa last Friday.

He wants to be the first New Zealand coach on this tour to claim a Lions scalp, and that will to win will continue everywhere the tourists travel. Contrast that with the approach of the South African and Australian equivalents on the 2009 and 2013 tours when they chose to play understrength sides, without their frontline internationals.

The worst was the decision four years ago of Western Force coach Michael Foley who, as the Wallaby hooker against the Lions in 2001, should have known better. By picking a largely second-string team, he denied several of his players the, once in a lifetime, chance of playing against the Lions.

They did have a Super Rugby game against the Waratahs four days later but had nothing left to play for in that competition. The Lions hammered them 67-17 in their first game on Australian soil and the hosts lost an early opportunity to put a dent in the march of their illustrious opponents.

You can be absolutely sure the New Zealand sides won’t be anywhere near as accommodating but that may well serve the Lions better in the test series, so long as they are competitive in those provincial games. Influenced by some impressive individual performances against poor opposition in the build-up to the opening test in 2009, the Lions management made some bad selection calls that were badly exposed in that key contest.

There is no danger of that happening on this tour as every opposition, from today’s game onwards, have the capacity not only to push the Lions, but to beat them. Saturday’s game against Canterbury Crusaders could well prove the most difficult challenge outside the Test series.

The game against the Maori All Blacks is often dubbed the unofficial fourth test - they beat the Lions on the last tour in 2005 - but the Crusaders are the country’s leading Super Rugby side at present, unbeaten all season and they play an exhilarating brand of rugby.

Beating them would offer a massive boost to the entire Lions squad.

The Lions players will just have to get used to the fact that, by and large, the New Zealand public don’t rate them. When you meet their supporters after a game, they will ask in blissful ignorance - bear in mind a recent poll conducted claimed 78% of New Zealanders couldn’t name a single Lion - “who are ye playing next?”

When you answer, the response is always the same “oh dear, if you thought today was tough, they will be even tougher”.

And so it continues. Welcome to New Zealand.

The key thing for the players is to embrace that challenge. In some respects these provincial games will be harder that the test matches as you are playing against a side that has played over ten, high quality, games already this season. You are also facing players for whom playing against the Lions will represent the highlight of their career and they will lift their performances accordingly.

In the professional era, the opportunity presented for some previously unheralded provincial player is even greater as he is afforded a chance to showcase his talents to a range of European clubs with the potential to triple his earning capacity.

At this early stage of the trip it is all about generating momentum for the tour party as everyone, from players to management, are only getting to know each other. Some players will surprise you in a positive way while others will fail to measure up to the standard that convinced you to pick them in the first place. It will take a minor miracle for the Lions to make it all the way to the first test unbeaten. The important thing is how they react to that inevitable first tour defeat and how they turn it to their advantage.

Lions tours are largely defined by the outcome of the test series. What happens in the six games leading up to the key opening test will have a major bearing on that. The next two weeks will tell us a lot.

Follow Donal on Twitter @LenihanDonal

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