The British and Irish Lions will never again have to deal with the lack of preparation that has hindered their start to the tour of New Zealand this year should talks over the new global rugby season reach a successful conclusion, but tour manager John Spencer believes that the prospect of an agreement remains some way off.
On a day where the Lions were greeted with a spectacular Maori welcome at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the location of the declaration of British sovereignty over New Zealand in 1840, with the squad facing three challenges from a local tribe before they performed a Powhiri for the touring party, all of which took place in glorious sunshine overlooking the picturesque Bay of Islands.
“It was good,” captain Sam Warburton said afterwards. We’ve had quite a few Maori welcomes in 2011 for the World Cup and when Wales toured here last summer, but that was like nothing I’ve experienced before. That was brilliant.
“The day and the setting made it even more special. Off the rugby field, that was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had. All the players came out of there in awe really.”
Part of the Lions’ responsibilities on this tour is to give back to the community and show their reputation in the best light possible, and the players did exactly that in performing all four of their choir songs back to the Maoris in a sign of respect and to offer an insight into their own differing culture, having performed Jerusalem, Calon Lan, Highland Cathedral and Fields of Athenry to demonstrate the languages used by all four home nations.
Tour manager Spencer, a Lions veteran of the successful 1971 tour of New Zealand that to this day remains the only series victory over the All Blacks, admitted that Sunday’s ceremony was like nothing he had seen before. “We were expecting it,” he added. “We were warned about it at home, and we were very determined to come here to show our respect and our friendship, which are two of the core values which we value very highly.”
But attentions quickly turned back to the main matters at hand and the attempt to end the 46-year wait for a series win on these shores that got off to a successful yet disappointing start on Saturday in the form of the 13-7 victory over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians. It was a match where the Lions completely underwhelmed, though much of that was down to the issues of playing 72 hours after landing from a two-day flight as well as having less time than Warren Gatland wanted to prepare his team for the tour.
The Lions were unable to gain the additional week that they wanted before jetting out to New Zealand, given the domestic finals were scheduled for that weekend, while the New Zealand Rugby Union would not budge on the agreed schedule that had the Lions playing on the first Saturday after their arrival.
Lions vs New Zealand Provincial Barbarians player ratings
With talks already underway about how the Lions will fit into the new global season, Spencer believes that there will not be a future tour where a similar scenario occurs, although World Rugby’s recent claim that the final agreement is close was dismissed by the Lions tour manager who said there is still plenty of work to do.
“Well negotiations for the new global calendar are really only in their infancy and we’re just going to have to be a part of those negotiations,” Spencer explained.
“Look at the Lions tour. Look how huge it is. I don’t like the word ‘brand’ but look what a creed it is, what a concept it is. We’ll enjoy ourselves but I think the people in New Zealand, from what I’ve seen over the last three or four days, are happy to have us here. They’re looking forward to it, it’s a real sporting challenge.
“I think there is a long way to go. They’ve decided that they want to reduce matches and they’ve decided that they want a different length to the season, that sort of thing, but they’ve decided that they want other things. Now we want to be in those negotiations to put forward our point but there’s no anger here, it’s purely one of negotiation and trying to get other people to understand how great the Lions tour is.
“It mustn’t be lost. There’s no way the Lions tour can be lost because this is one of the things that inspires rugby around the world and inspires young people in particular.”