Following 720 minutes of explosive rugby, the British & Irish Lions 2017 Tour to New Zealand is soon to close, with one last match to play tomorrow, Saturday 8th July. For the past six weeks the Lions have been scouring the country to see what New Zealand has to offer, including the momentous All Blacks themselves.
This year’s British and Irish Lions consists of the 41 highest ranking rugby players from the four nations, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Since 1888, the players chosen have toured the southern hemisphere, rotating between New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa (as well as Argentina in the past). The Lions have previously won 15 tours: one New Zealand tour, three Argentinian tours, four South African tours, and seven Australian tours, out of a possible 36.
This year the squad have played an array of talent across New Zealand and will return home with a mixture of wins and losses. In the first four weeks of the tour the team visited some of the country’s leading clubs, before meeting the All Blacks for the first test match on Saturday 24th June.
However, the 2017 addition of one of the most highly-revered sporting outfits has played out to a backdrop of questions over the future of the Lions, with the ideology and practicality of the tour coming under scrutiny for various reasons.
There is some concern amongst clubs, entirely reasonably, that losing their key players for weeks on end could have an effect on the domestic game. Many high-level club sides lose their most influential players to the tour: nine of the 12 English Premiership teams for example have lost more than one player this summer. This may seem like a minor problem on the surface, considering the tour takes place within the end and beginning of the domestic season, however many of those selected will not return to training until mid-August, only a couple of weeks before the new season begins. Consequently, Lions players will have a restricted time to recuperate and fit back into their club setups before they are needed to play again.
It has been suggested that future Lions tours be shortened in length from seven to five weeks, which would make the current touring schedule unattainable. Officials agree that the Lions need at least two weeks of preparation time, so removing this time could be damaging to results. With less training time and fewer matches before the first Test, the Lions would come under incredible pressure from the host nation and from fans back home who are hungry for success.
Couple the Lions schedule with the home nations’ own tours and you have a situation where the top clubs are without half their playing squad for the start of pre-season training. This summer, England played a two-match series against Argentina; Ireland played a two-match series against Japan; Wales played Samoa and Tonga; and Scotland played Italy, Australia and Fiji.
Had the Lions succumbed to a widely-expected 3-0 series defeat to the All Blacks, the questions over the side’s long-term viability would have reached a cacophony. However, last Saturday’s result may have been the saving grace for the Lions. They achieved the unexpected and remarkably beat the All Blacks 24-21, levelling the series at 1-1, in a game bursting with tension and anticipation.
New Zealand are the undisputed kings of international rugby and the team every side wants to beat. Fans thrive for matches against the All Blacks, praying for a win they have been desperately waiting for. Beating them in their own backyard is the ultimate goal… which the Lions finally achieved.
In fact, they made history, ending New Zealand’s impressive winning streak at home, dating back to 2009. Not only this, but the Lions also became the first team to conquer the All Blacks at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington since 2003, 14 years ago. New Zealand also saw one of their players, the mercurial Sonny Bill Williams, become the first All Black to be sent off in 50 years. The Lions faced a man advantage, which they capitalised on, just.
This historic win for the Lions was crucial, not only giving them a huge confidence boost, but also reaffirming the love so many have for the tour. Of course, they have still not completed what they came to New Zealand for – a series win- but they are one step closer to it and head into tomorrow’s Test with the chance to become just the second Lions team to win a series in New Zealand.
For many of the players, winning tomorrow’s match will rank as highly as winning the World Cup – it is the ultimate challenge and both teams will come out all guns blazing, with one objective alone – to defeat the other. It will be a tough ordeal, with the media already coining the New Zealand’s anticipated response a ‘Black-lash’. They will fire everything they have at the Lions, yet a win for the away side will create a legacy. In order to do so they must end New Zealand’s 23-year unbeaten run at Auckland’s Eden Park.
Win or lose, the Lions will leave New Zealand with bags of respect, despite the media there heaping unprecedented levels of pressure on the touring side and their Kiwi coach, Warren Gatland. It’s safe to say this tour has proved the Lions still have a place in the heart of rugby fans and will hopefully convince the doubters that it is still one of the great institutions in sport.