Rugby: Lead-up matches suit Lions

Charlie McEwen, Chief Operating Officer (left) and Nigel Cass, British and Irish Lions General Manager. Photo / Nick Reed
Charlie McEwen, Chief Operating Officer (left) and Nigel Cass, British and Irish Lions General Manager. Photo / Nick Reed

Lions coaching staff have endorsed what has been described as a suicidal itinerary, when they visit New Zealand over June and July.

Former Lions and All Blacks coach Graham Henry last month warned of the severity of the schedule, but Lions chief operating officer Charlie McEwen told Newstalk ZB's Tony Veitch the bigger concern was not getting enough competition over the early weeks of the journey.

"From the last two tours, what we've experienced is being undercooked for the first test," said McEwen.

"If you speak to our coaches, they're delighted with our schedule - we'll be challenged and battle-hardened by the time the first test comes along.

"We worked very closely with New Zealand Rugby to understand what they were looking for. When NZ Rugby came to us with the schedule, we took that around to the four home-union coaches and they overwhelmingly said that the teams we were playing were the right teams.

"In order to be best prepared for the first test match, it was critical that we played against full-blown Super Rugby teams ...

"We had input from the rugby experts to pull together the schedule and they gave us the thumbs up."

And despite previous Northern Hemisphere misgivings over the All Blacks' use of the haka as a pre-match ritual, McEwen was delighted to learn that Super Rugby franchises would also perform the Maori challenges when facing the Lions.

"We're embracing the opportunity to include ceremonies at all these games to mark the unique occasion," he said.

"We'll be facing the haka on a number of occasions, which will be a first, but we look forward to it.

"We understand and respect that it's part of the national identity. We come to New Zealand with arms open, to get to know the people and the culture."

McEwen made it clear that the Lions were intent on winning the three-test series against the All Blacks, but a crucial element of that was enjoying the tour, and taking the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of local fans.

"Our expectations are winning this series," he said. "It's not only our objective, it's our expectation - we don't want to win, we expect to win.

"But this is a festival of rugby, it's not just about 10 games - it's about a national event. We'll be travelling to Waitangi, to Queenstown and our fans will be all over New Zealand.

"We want to be approachable and that's a really important part of touring. We will be successful if we enjoy ourselves, if we embrace the experience of travelling around New Zealand, meeting people and making friends. We're here to play great rugby and win the series, yes, but it comes down to enjoying the experience."

- Herald on Sunday

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