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I'd be Lion if I said I wasn't excited

The All Blacks are awesome personified. (AAP Image/ David Rowland)
Roar Pro
1st June, 2017
68
1546 Reads

A wave of anticipation is sweeping across New Zealand.

The British and Irish Lions have arrived. They have one goal: to beat the All Blacks in their own back yard. They are here to win.

Accompanying them are hordes of beer swilling, rugby mad fans full of song and expectation.

It has a similar feel to the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Except this time there’s no preamble of pool play, and no minnow bashing of teams like Georgia, Namibia or Australia.

I still recall being released early from school to watch Taranaki play the Lions in 1993. Or more accurately, the school simply conceded as we flooded out the gates.

While the Lions were convincing winners, Rugby Park was absolutely humming and local heroes like Crowley, Slater and Bull Allen mixed it with the big boys from up north.

24 years on and my 9-year-old nephew is joining us for the Blues versus Lions match. He loves his rugby. Hopefully the Blues push the tourists, the fans are in full voice, and his first Lions experience is one to remember.

It should be a bruising encounter, in a congested itinerary littered with potentially bruising encounters. What madman agreed to that playing schedule?

kieran-read-all-blacks-new-zealand-rugby-union-2016

(AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford)

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Or maybe it’s genius. If you’re going to challenge the All Blacks on home soil, this rugby mad country, then why not embrace it and hit it with everything?

Coach Warren Gatland has stated the Lions are prepared to lose a few regional matches while trying different combinations.

Despite losing to the Brumbies during their previous Australian tour, I don’t believe them. They’re trying to lull us into a false sense of security. I can feel it.

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure Britain also told us not to worry before they joined the European Economic Community in 1973. That almost crippled our economy.

The Lions would gain valuable momentum and confidence if they can win the mid-week games.

It would also make for a cracking series, and certainly ensure their passionate fans are singing – not that they need much of an invitation. The real challenge is getting them to stop.

Ok, we get it; your currency is stronger than ours. It’s why we inflate prices while you’re here.

The Lions bring something different, both in their style of play and the players themselves, who may be largely unknown to many New Zealand fans. Importantly, the Lions also provide a point of reference for performance.

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New Zealand is the current world cup holder, and the All Blacks have achieved much under Hansen. But is New Zealand rugby really as dominant as Kiwi scribes would have us believe?

Have regular matches against struggling opposition and over used superlatives flattered to deceive? Is it possible New Zealand has been wearing the Emperor’s new rugby shorts?

(Photo: Paul Barkley / LookPro)

Let’s be honest, both Australian and South African rugby have faced challenges in recent years. The Australian netball franchises have shown a bigger appetite for contact than their Super Rugby counterparts.

And if that sounds harsh, it’s intended to be. Quite frankly you’re spoiling our national sense of self-satisfaction.

The most damning indicator of the current state of Australian rugby is their remarkable silence.

It’s been 17 years since the Bledisloe Test in Sydney dubbed ‘the greatest game of rugby ever played’. It feels much longer than that.

I sincerely hope Australian rugby can recapture the innovative yet combative style that made them so attractive to watch.

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But I digress. Back to the Lions; a team with pride.

The resurgence of English rugby and constant baiting from northern hemisphere agitators, like adopted son Eddie Jones, sports writer Stephen Jones and 60s pop sensation Tom Jones, has only added to the anticipation.

Ok, I don’t actually know Tom’s position on the subject, but I got caught in the moment – which is not unusual.

The first Test could be critical. The All Blacks have a few niggling injuries to key players and there’s often a bit of rust first up.

But pressure is nothing new to the All Blacks. Steve Hansen’s mantra to his players is to embrace that pressure, the moment, and rise to the challenge.

It is effective. His record is undeniable.

So how will the Lions cope with similar pressure, if not more? They carry the hopes and expectations of not just one nation, but four.

And there’s the ever present carnivorous British and Irish media, so quick to celebrate, even quicker to eviscerate. No one bashes their teams quite like they do.

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Warren Gatland knows New Zealand rugby intimately, having played and coached there.

He knows the country, the people. The Lions’ first opponents, the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, even feature his son Bryn at first five.

Wales' head coach Warren Gatland

(Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

A quick disclaimer: contrary to popular belief, not all Kiwis are related – with the possible exception of some areas in the bottom of the south island.

Gatland seems to instil confidence in his troops, and has plenty of experience and quality to choose from. His teams often employ a rushing defence, and the Lions will be doing their best to suffocate the explosive All Black backline.

But if they don’t get it quite right, they could suffer a death of a thousand Beauden Barrett pinpoint cross kicks.

It will be fascinating to see what tactics the Lions employ, running rugby or a grinding set piece focus.

Regardless of approach, the Test series promises plenty of intensity, passion and aggression from both sides. And a fair bit of singing from the stands.

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I can’t wait. The Lions are here.