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Some of the greatest sporting events only happen every four years – witness the Olympics and the soccer and rugby World Cups. That format works just as well for the British and Irish Lions, but what makes their tours even more special is that they alternate between the three southern hemisphere rugby powers – which means they only get to take on New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks every dozen years. That combined with the resurgence of Northern Hemisphere teams is making the 2017 Lions tour rugby’s most eagerly anticipated sporting event in decades. The Lions kick off their 10 match, three Test tour on Saturday. Biznews.com will provide the rugby insider’s view from former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad who played against all of the team the Lions will face in the Land of the Long White Cloud. We are privileged to have Bob previewing and reviewing each game, providing a unique neutral perspective of a tour where emotions run even higher off the field than on it. Here is his overview and the full schedule of matches. Diarise them and keep an eye out later in the week for Bob’s preview of the first game. – Alec Hogg
By Bob Skinstad*
As a rugby man, there is something very exciting on the horizon, and it looms closer each day we jump forward into summer. There is something in the air. As any fan of rugby in the UK will tell you ‘its Lions time!’
Wikipedia explains the basics:
The British and Irish Lions is a rugby union team selected from players eligible for any of the Home Nations, which are the national sides of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The side tours every four years, with these rotating among Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The 2009 Test series was lost 2–1 to South Africa, while the 2013 Test series was won 2–1 over Australia.
What is looming for the salivating rugby public is so much more than just that.
The hosts this time, New Zealand, are the dominant side in World Rugby with the national side, the All Blacks, having won the last two World Cups. As Super Rugby results tell us the NZ provincial teams also have an incredibly high standard of players available.
Rugby fans are relishing the idea of a clash between the Lions and the All Blacks for a number of reasons.
The tour is going be relentless even before the Test Series starts with the Lions facing midweek matchups against Super Rugby champions. That offers local heroes a chance to shine on the global stage, something which ensures they play above themselves. A Lions scalp is the most prized possession for any Southern Hemisphere provincial team.
But it is off the field where things really heat up.
New Zealanders are rabid rugby supporters. Add in over 30 000 travelling British and Irish fans and there is sure to be a cauldron of hype, expectation and microscopic analysis of the players before, during and after they do battle on the field.
Exciting stuff! Rugby fans studying the itinerary will hear the towns and stadiums that are destinations on tour, bellow out their names like the battlefields of ancient wars. I’ve had the privilege of playing at all of them.
Eden Park, in New Zealand‘s capital city of Auckland, is the nation’s biggest sports arena at 50 000 capacity. It will host the tourists three times: against past Super Rugby champions and the stadium’s home team, the Blues, and for the first and last of the three Tests against the All Blacks.
Rotorua, an adventure playground for visitors, will host the Lions against the relatively unknown quantity of the New Zealand Maoris. The town is built on volcanic valleys and thermal springs and, like the team, represents a great and urgent power bubbling under a calm demeanour.
Springbok Danie Craven created history by forging a strong and respectful relationship with the Maori people and engendered their support for the touring Springboks, as far back as 1937. The Lions fans would do well to do the same. Deeply connected to the land, the Maori are a special people who have influenced the history of the All Blacks in many ways, including through the famous haka.
They have been ever-present in Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. And as we see in the haka, when it comes to their rugby heritage and destiny there is no standing back for dangerous visitors from far away lands.
The other venues, Hamilton, Dunedin, Wellington and Christchurch are also all home to Super Rugby competition winners. They all have great domestic support, and talented coaching crews, no doubt keen to make a name for themselves by adding a victory over the Lions to their brimming trophy cabinets.
A task too far ? Maybe not….
Nothing great was ever easy. Lions coach Warren Gatland has been at pains to say what a big tour this will be, and his players have all vocalized their excitement and passion for the opportunity. The fact that Gatland stepped down from his national role of coaching Wales, to concentrate fully, shows you size of the task at hand.
A logistics behemoth, there is a separation of roles, and the on-field job of coaching and preparation, being paramount, has a number of incredibly experienced and talented contributors. Just regarding play and strategy, the backroom staff have been handpicked for the toughest battles, five assistant coaches, all specialists, sit alongside Gatland on his panel, they ensure through contribution, that the team is always picked on ability, character and form.
The Lions team selection is always a great talking point, it involves so many factors, people, influences, and has so many far reaching implications. Sam Warburton retains his captaincy after his success last tour in 2013, an epic clash with Australia’s Wallabies, when the Lions win the series.
There are many keys to success: the tour must go according to plan. Previous visits, in particular the ill-fated trip that the Lions embarked on to NZ twelve years ago were ruined off the field before they were even able to take on the All Blacks. Clive Woodward and his PR disaster, led by Alistair Campbell, is widely seen as how not to do it.
This Lions squad has already got off on the right foot, managing social media in committee with the players, been open to the media and having launched some rousing commercials that encapsulate the excitement we are about to witness.
It’s a classic tour, traditional rugby pundits and fans are delighted and excited – we will be covering the preparation and buildup in weekly interviews, and look forward to giving you insights and updates on the brave Lion men – taking on the greatest rugby foes of all time.