FOUR years have whizzed by since Jono Gibbes enjoyed his moment of glory against the British and Irish Lions. The Leinster forwards coach was captain of the New Zealand Maori for the third game of that ill-fated tour and, with nine All Blacks in the first XV and three more on the bench, it was billed as an unofficial fourth test.
Munster’s Rua Tipoki was part of a back line that boasted talent like Leon MacDonald, Rico Gear and Luke McAlister, while Gibbes scrummed down with Marty Holah and Carl Hayman among others.
The Lions fielded the heaviest front row in their history that day in Hamilton but were still battered into defeat by a ferocious Maori side that claimed a first victory over the famed tourists at the seventh attempt.
Six points apiece at the interval, Carlos Spencer’s introduction early in the second half turned the tables in the home side’s favour and a late Brian O’Driscoll touchdown merely added a touch of gloss to a 19-13 reverse.
“I felt that it happened really fast,” said Gibbes. “I looked up at one stage and 65 minutes had gone by already. That is how it felt. When Drico scored his try, it was a little deflating.
“I remember, key moments, particularly the tactic we talked about after that try, how we wanted to play. It is all clear as mud. It was a real draining game. I didn’t even have a beer after it. I just went straight home to bed.”
This year’s Lions will play two games less against non-test opposition but the challenge will hardly be any easier for that with a pair of Super 14 sides lying in wait prior to the first test in Durban. Games against the likes of the Golden Lions and Western Province will require equally Herculean efforts from Ian McGeechan’s troops, whose scalp will be the most prized many of their opponents will ever have a chance to claim.
Said Gibbes: “You’d have had a lot of guys at Bay of Plenty (in 2005) who were never going to play test rugby. Hardly any of them are going to play Super 14 and they are told 18 months out that the Lions are going to come.
“You are going to be ready to go. You are going to throw everything you possibly can at them just to measure up against them, just to see what it is like to play against Six Nations forwards, all these guys you see on TV.
“That is the real challenge of the Lions. The midweek games are going to be just as brutal as the tests.”
Gibbes finds it strange evaluating the uniqueness of the Lions concept from the opposite side of the world but he is a paid-up member of the fan club, if only because it brings test-level rugby back to the host nation’s provinces.
The only comparison he can think of on this side of the equator is last November’s meeting between New Zealand and Munster at Thomond Park and the All Blacks can vouch for the difficulties presented by a motivated underdog on such occasions.
The challenge is a daunting one. A series on the world champions’ home turf with a scratch side and two of the tests at altitude: and all this against some of the biggest and feared forwards rugby union has to offer.
It isn’t for Gibbes to speak for Stephen Ferris, the Munster contingent or any of the other squad grunts but he spoke confidently about Jamie Heaslip’s ability to deal with that level of physicality.
“I got to play against the (number eight) who is in there now, Pierre Spies. He is just a monster that moves really fast, and on the hard grounds. It will be a huge challenge but, once Jamie gets over the size of him, he definitely has skills to deal with that stuff.
“The South Africans are big and they are world champions but there are things which the Lions can expose.”
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