Warren Gatland's British & Irish Lions are seeking just their second series win on New Zealand soil in the 129-year history of clashes between touring sides and New Zealand rugby's finest.

As excitement grows for the three-test series - the country's most anticipated sporting event since the 2011 Rugby World Cup - the Herald looks back at the Lions' rich history of touring New Zealand.

Today: Pre-WWI tours: 1888, 1904 and 1908

When the team dubbed the English Footballers boarded the SS Kaikoura in the UK bound for New Zealand, few could have imagined this was the beginning of a 129-year sporting rivalry which continues to grip both nations.

The side played 35 matches on tour - which included 19 matches in New Zealand and a further 16 matches across the Tasman.

It took six weeks for the combined team to arrive on our shores, before further arduous travel - a world away from the first-class travel treatment provided to current sides.

"People have forgotten the difficulty that there was travelling around New Zealand. Often they would have to take a boat to get from place to place," New Zealand Rugby Museum director Stephen Berg said.

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"Sometimes they would land off the boat in the morning and play that afternoon - they might be a bit seasick. Horse and cart ... well that takes a long time to get anywhere."

Rugby historian Clive Akers said in many ways the tour awakened New Zealand to rugby's potential.

"Rugby was the major sport of the time [in New Zealand], but not many could play sport because everybody had to work six days a week and Sunday was always for family and church," he said.

"And not many could afford to be away to tour even with their provincial teams."

Members of the 1888 English Footballers team that toured New Zealand and Australia. Photo / Wikimedia
Members of the 1888 English Footballers team that toured New Zealand and Australia. Photo / Wikimedia

Berg added that the original tour also helped clarify to New Zealand players and administrators the proper rules of rugby.

The English Footballers returned to the UK with a record of 27 wins, six losses and two draws.

Sixteen years later and the second combined team from the UK arrived in New Zealand, a side then referred to as the British Rugby Team.

That tour also marked the first official test played by New Zealand. The local team won 9-3.

"It would have been very significant," Akers said. "That one test was history-making."

The British Rugby Team wore a red, blue and white hooped jersey; one of which is proudly on display at the New Zealand Rugby Museum.

Both Akers and Berg said the incoming tour was an important springboard for our national team before it embarked a year later on the world-famous 1905 Originals tour - where the side were first dubbed the "All Blacks".

Trevor Lloyd illustration of the result of the third test, Britain v New Zealand, at Alexandra Park, Auckland on 25 July 1908. Photo / NZH Archive
Trevor Lloyd illustration of the result of the third test, Britain v New Zealand, at Alexandra Park, Auckland on 25 July 1908. Photo / NZH Archive

The final pre-World War I tour by a British selection arrived in New Zealand in 1908.

Known as the Anglo-Welsh team, the side featured no players from either Scotland or Ireland.

"There are all sorts of rumours about why the Irish and Scottish didn't tour with the Anglo-Welsh in 1908," Berg said.

"We think it is because the Scottish were still upset about arrangements made in 1905. The All Blacks went all that way [to Europe] ... the New Zealand Rugby Union was trying to fund all of this and arrangements were made to play Scotland.

"Scotland was saying, 'We don't want to put on this match because who is going to want to watch New Zealand play, New Zealand were going to take all the gate money so you guys go and organise it yourselves, we don't want a bar of it'.

"So New Zealand organised the game and made hundreds of pounds in profit from the game. The Scots were still upset about the way that had happened and believed New Zealand were professionals, so they didn't want to play.

"The Irish bought into it and decided not to come as well."

Three tests were played on tour, with New Zealand winning the first and third clashes. The second test was a 3-3 draw.

Bob Deans passed away months after the match - his 24th for the All Blacks. Above: How the Weekly News saw the 29-0 loss in 1908. Photo / New Zealand Herald Archives
Bob Deans passed away months after the match - his 24th for the All Blacks. Above: How the Weekly News saw the 29-0 loss in 1908. Photo / New Zealand Herald Archives

The 29-0 in the final test at Potters Park, Auckland, was Bob Deans' 24th and final match for the All Blacks. He passed away just months later due to complications after an appendix operation.

"The Deans family is part of Bob Deans' legacy. Bob Deans is always going to be the legend for that non-try in 1905 - but his ongoing legacy I guess is the Deans family, the players that played in the 1980s and early 90s. He has left a nice little legacy in New Zealand rugby."

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Thanks to the New Zealand Rugby Museum, its director Stephen Berg and rugby historian Clive Akers