Appetiser for Lions tour feast

Sevens at the Cake Tin, then tens next week in Brisbane, and a month from now, we'll be charging into debate after the opening games of Super Rugby, writes Wynne Gray.

Condensed sport is making further bust-out moves with the Big Bash League cricket crescendo and Monday's start to the Chappell-Hadlee series at Eden Park before the same arena hosts the rugby league nines.

Pessimism about crowd numbers for the sevens will be shunted aside as we see how Gordon Tietjens and Samoa gel in the game which endorsed his credentials while New Zealand start with interim coaches until Clark Laidlaw takes up his role mid-year.

The build-up for the tens has dwelt on whether senior All Blacks will be as prominent as marketing suggests, while debate continues about player workloads, remuneration and the rugby calendar.


Flicking through those schedules, one that's usually off the radar is right in range and will be the target order for those who prefer double-shot rugby rather than decaf, trim-milk versions.

The Six Nations, that traditional comfy cardigan-style rugby series, has been through the makeover factory in recent years. They could always do crowds and barrels of bonhomie like no other but the rugby did not scrub up.

Multiple reasons restricted the game - squabbles over clubs releasing players, coaching issues, weather and ground conditions, ambition, planning.

Progress has been extensive on many levels and the Lions have been the garnish with their past two tours to South Africa in 2009 and Australia in 2013. New Zealand is the missing piece in the latter-day resurgence after mistakes pock-marked the playing and public relations levels in their last 2005 visit.

In mid-year, Warren Gatland and his men begin their quest to make amends and from next week, through the growing gifts of technology, we can tune in to get a handle on progress.

You can have all your entertainment, frills and skills to pad out a day at an abbreviated footy tournament but give me test rugby and its intensity every time.

The opening round begins at Murrayfield where Scotland will go up against Ireland, England host France at Twickenham and Wales are away to Italy. Wham, bam, straight into it.

The Scots have fullback Stuart Hogg, who is picked by most pundits as the tour-frontrunner, the Gray brothers at lock, deadly goalkicking halfback Greig Laidlaw and an earnest pack.

Ireland are led by Rory Best, who is in the frame to be Lions captain and fronts a stack of loose forward talent, including Sean O'Brien, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip, alongside the inspection of talented halves Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton.

Coach Eddie Jones has made an unbeaten equal record run of 14 tests since starting with England. A bathroom accident this week which left him with a black eye and cut cheekbone has been his only slip-up as his players vie for Lions selection.

The last action of the opening round will have Gatland zeroing in on Wales to figure out who will fit into his Lions template for the attempt to match their famous 1971 predecessors. Will the 2013 tour captain Sam Warburton earn a repeat appointment or will injury and other talent scuttle that milestone?

In a little over four months, inspection will be excessive but this far out and from this distance, the Six Nations is an inviting curtain-raiser.