And their colourful fans!
By Roger Childs
More than 90% of New Zealanders have British Isles family or ancestry, so there is a special bond with the British and Irish Lions. This rugby team, made up of players from the four Home Nations, is always popular and there is special interest this year as their coach is Kiwi-born, Warren Gatland.
The enthusiastic fans are a wonderful combination of old and young, and are warmly welcomed throughout the nation. They enjoy touring the country; love partying, eating and drinking; and consequently inject megabucks into the economy.
We are in for a special five weeks of rugby with the first game kicking off in Whangarei over the weekend.
A powerful combination
You would expect a side drawn from four A grade international rugby teams to be a powerful combination.
The All Blacks lead the rankings in World rugby, but England is not far behind. Most of Eddie Jones 2016 barn-storming English squad are in the Lions, as well as the best from Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
After the humiliation of being the co-hosts for the last World Cup and being eliminated in the first round, the wily Eddie Jones rebuilt the England side. They won game after game last year and
threatened to break New Zealand’s record for consecutive test wins.
But then they struck the banana skin team, Ireland, and fell flat on their faces as the All Blacks had done in Chicago the previous year.
The Lions do have plenty of talent and are led by the talented and experienced, Sam Warburton. The Welsh captain infamously cost his team a chance of a place in the 2001 World Cup final by being red-carded for a spear -tackle in semi-final clash against France.
However, Sam is more disciplined player these days.
Do they have a chance?
Most rugby critics and fans expect the All Blacks to win the series 3-0. But there should be no complacency. On paper the British and Irish Lions are a strong team and their one advantage over New Zealand is the strength of their goal kicking.
However, getting the men from four nations to gel into a winning team, is the big challenge for Warren Gatland.
They had an outstanding squad in 1959, but were plagued with injuries. They also suffered at the hands of biased New Zealand referees. In the first test in Dunedin they were leading 17-9 with 15 minutes to go, having scored four excellent tries to none. The local ref obligingly awarded the All Blacks three penalties before the end, and big-kicking full back, Don Clarke, gave the home side an undeserved 18-17 victory.
They also had a very good side in 1971 and were well coached by Welshman Carwyn James. This team achieved what no other Lions side has done before or since, they won the series.
Gatland’s team does have chance, but they will be well aware of the All Blacks proud record at home and the incredible depth of New Zealand rugby.
Let the tour begin!