Editorial: Will 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand be 1971 revisited?

Warren Gatland has formidable talent at his hands. Photo / Photosport
Warren Gatland has formidable talent at his hands. Photo / Photosport

Steve Hansen has already laid the marker.

After the return test against Ireland in Dublin, the All Blacks coach made a bold prediction that was more than hyperbole.

The British and Irish Lions team to tour New Zealand next year will potentially be the finest side representing the four Home Unions to travel to our shores, opined the New Zealand coach.

Those with long rugby memories know that is not a statement to be made lightly.

The 1971 Lions are a side steeped in rugby folklore in this country. Many believe them to be the finest rugby team to tour New Zealand.

Certainly, old-timers will tell you New Zealand rugby owes a massive debt of gratitude to that side which featured names still of household status.

Sideburned halfback Gareth Edwards, the incomparable Barry John, the sleek Irish midfielder Mike Gibson, stunningly handsome English winger David Duckham, the flying fullback JPR Williams ...

they taught us how to play running rugby.

Back then the All Blacks were a dour on-field outfit. Rugged, tough...yes. But brute force was the key ingredient.

The breathtaking All Blacks rugby we now marvel over - the sledgehammer within the velvet glove - had its genesis in that Lions side of almost half a century ago.

Hansen himself had said in the past how strongly the '71 Lions influenced the coaching philosophy of his father Des and the impression it left on him as a young lad.

Therefore the All Black coach's warning - reiterated as recent as yesterday when he said New Zealand must get everything absolutely right if the Lions are to be tamed - is one we should all take onboard.

The '71 outfit remain the only Lions side to ever win in New Zealand. That Hansen believes a second triumph on rugby's toughest overseas soil is within the potential of the 2017 visitors should be enough to rid even the most fervent of All Blacks supporters of any misplaced confidence.

The just-completed northern hemisphere tour has created new respect among New Zealand rugby fans for the Home Unions.

In New Zealand-raised Warren Gatland, they travel here for the first time with a Kiwi coach.

Gatland has formidable talent at his hands.

Picture a Lions outfit driven by a mainly English front five, rejuvenated under Eddie Jones and making rapid progress, an Irish backrow with the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien, the choice of either the Irish halves of Connor Murphy and Jonny Sexton or the English pairing of Ben Youngs and George Ford.

Add in a few Welshmen and Scots such as Sam Warburton and Greig Laidlaw and suddenly you can sense why Hansen is so wary.

Then there is the Gatland factor.

The wily former All Blacks hooker won't make the same mistakes committed by Sir Clive Woodward in 2005 when the Lions were contemptuously swept 3-0 by an impervious New Zealand team inspired by Dan Carter.

Woodward made a rod for his own team's back with his theatrical and over-the-top antics which made he and his players targets for a Kiwi public that played its own part in breaking the spirit of the tourists.

Gatland will arrive with rafts of technical and coaching support crew rather than a political spin doctor like Alastair Campbell.

Take heed New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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