The British and Irish Lions begin their tour of New Zealand against the NZ Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei on June 3. PETER WHITE previews the tour in the first of four Saturday features building up to the Maori All Blacks game in Rotorua on June 17.

There is a special mystique associated with the British and Irish Lions team unlike any other in world rugby.

It may be because it is a unique combination of players from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland rather than one nation.

Or because the Lions have never played a match in any of the four countries and only tour every four years on a rotational basis to New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

What is certain is the expectation ahead of next month's Lions tour here is way beyond that of any of the regular inbound June tours that scarcely register among All Blacks fans until a week before the first test.

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Bledisloe Cups and Investec Rugby Championships are enthusiastically supported by All Blacks fans but only the Rugby World Cup can match a Lions tour.

With the All Blacks in all-conquering form in 18 tests since winning the 2016 Rugby World Cup - until being knocked over by an astute tactical performance from Ireland in Chicago last November - the timing of this Lions tour could not be better.

It is the first since 2005 when the hapless squad, under the coaching of Englishman Clive Woodward, were outclassed in all three test matches and lost to the Maori All Blacks.

This year's touring party under former All Blacks hooker and Wales coach Warren Gatland will play the NZ Provincial Barbarians, all five Super Rugby franchises and the Maori All Blacks outside of three tests.

Has there ever been a more difficult fixture list? Probably not.

Last year the Chiefs humiliated Gatland's Wales 40-7 in a midweek match between tests but he demanded a tough fixture list. In his view the only way to beat the All Blacks is to be at near test intensity every game.

Former All Blacks winger Bryan Williams, who played against the 1971 and 1977 Lions, is expecting a top class test series between two evenly matched opponents.

"The New Zealand Super teams are playing really well but I am pretty concerned about the high injury rate that has occurred so far. I hope everyone remains sound because if the All Blacks are at full strength they will be very hard to beat after the recent record," he said.

"But that Lions team is very strong, very experienced and I think they will be well led and develop a really good team culture with Warren Gatland and (captain) Sam Warburton. They also have John Spencer the team manager. He is a good mate of mine and a very good rugby man."

Williams said all players who were selected for the All Blacks or their franchise would never forget playing the Lions.

"World Cups come round every four years and some players don't even get to those. When the Lions only come here once every 12 years now then it is a career highlight and so many players never get to play against them.

"It is a great opportunity and a major milestone for every player who gets the chance."
Gatland's charges can take inspiration from the most successful Lions team to tour New Zealand.

The 1971 Lions were captained by John Dawes with some of the greatest players of the amateur age, including Irishmen Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride and the brilliant Welsh trio of Barry John, Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams.

They did what no Lions team had managed to do before or since and beat the All Blacks in a test series. And they did it in style.

TRIUMPHANT: Lions halfback Gareth Evans passes the ball to Barry John ahead of Sid Going and Ian Kirkpatrick in the third test of the 1971series. PHOTO: FILE
TRIUMPHANT: Lions halfback Gareth Evans passes the ball to Barry John ahead of Sid Going and Ian Kirkpatrick in the third test of the 1971series. PHOTO: FILE

The 1959 Lions won the hearts of New Zealand fans but not the test series, with brilliant Irish winger Tony O'Reilly a household name by the tour's end, but winning in New Zealand has proved elusive for generations of Lions players.

So how did the famous moniker of Lions come about?

Last check there has never been any sightings of lions running wild through the Yorkshire dales or Welsh valleys.

The players on the 1924 tour of South Africa wore ties decorated with a single lion that had been replaced on the jersey with a version of the four nations crest. The local press quickly dubbed them the Lions which has stuck ever since.

The blood-red jerseys the Lions wear first appeared on the 1950 tour of New Zealand as the previous dark blue jerseys clashed with the All Blacks.

It is time for a new chapter to be written in this famous rugby rivalry.


2017 British and Irish Lions fixtures, all 7.45pm kick-off

Saturday, June 3 NZ Barbarians, Toll Stadium, Whangarei
Wednesday, June 7 Blues, Eden Park, Auckland
Saturday, June 10 Crusaders, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Tuesday, June 13 Highlanders, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Saturday, June 17 Maori All Blacks, Rotorua International Stadium
Tuesday, June 20 Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton
Saturday, June 24 All Blacks, Eden Park, Auckland
Tuesday, June 27 Hurricanes, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Saturday, July 1 All Blacks, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Saturday, July 8 All Blacks, Eden Park, Auckland