The anticipation building around the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand will reach its peak tomorrow morning as the first Test of the three-match series takes place at Eden Park in Auckland.
The Lions have endured a bruising fixture list so far in New Zealand, winning four of their six encounters so far. On the other hand, the All Blacks have played one pre-test match against Samoa, running in 12 tries and making a statement of intent ahead of the first Test.
We caught up with three members of the Laureus rugby family, who are all too aware what it takes to compete in a Test match for or against the British and Irish Lions.
Laureus Academy Chairman and former All Blacks captain, Sean Fitzpatrick:
“The British and Irish Lions jersey I got when I played against them in 1993 is one of the greatest jerseys I have in my locker. As All Blacks, we count ourselves very lucky to play against the Lions because we only get one chance every 12 years. As fans we love watching the All Blacks face up against the Lions and as players those occasions are very, very special. Long may they continue.
“It think in terms of the Test series, I’ve always said it’s going to be very competitive – it’s just a matter of the Lions coming up to speed really and learning what they’re trying to do. They’ve shown that so far on the tour and they’re getting better and better but I think the first Test might be a little bit soon for them. If they’re going to win a Test match, I think the second Test in Wellington will be the one they can win and then it will be 1-1 going into the third test in Auckland, and all bets will be off.
“Eden Park is a bit of a fortress, I know the last time the All Blacks lost there because I was the captain in 1994 against the French. The All Blacks like playing there, they’ve won a World Cup Final there and they’ve won numerous Test matches there so to have two games there will be a boost to the confidence of the All Blacks going forward.”
Laureus Academy Member, four-time British and Irish Lions tourist, Brian O’Driscoll:
“The Lions tour is tougher in New Zealand; it is more all-consuming. Man, woman and child in New Zealand knows that the Lions are touring, it’s the national sport. The fact that the Lions only come once every 12 years heightens that anticipation, and ever since ’71 when the Lions beat the All Blacks on their own patch I think has created an excitement there that the Lions can be a special team and to be reckoned with.
“It was a whitewash 12 years ago but the previous tour went to the third and final Test so there’s definitely a respect from the Kiwis but there’s also an excitement and a big reward in being a series winner against the Lions. You realise how big an occasion it is because it comes around so rarely.
“Two Test matches are being played in Eden Park, somewhere where the All Blacks haven’t lost since 1994, so it doesn't auger unbelievably well. You get a sense that it would take a monumental achievement for the Lions to win the series. You live in hope but history would suggest that the All Blacks are firm favourites.”
Laureus Ambassador, former IRB World Player of the Year Schalk Burger:
“I think it’s interesting because obviously they’ve been put together, they found a blueprint against the Crusaders where they played really well and against the Maori’s they put them under pressure, it’s a pressure game, good kicking game and excellent set piece, and then rush defence to try to fluster the All Blacks. I think what stands out is the clash of styles. This weekend set piece will have a massive bearing on the game. If the Lions get set piece dominance, that’s going to create territory and pressure and the All Blacks will battle to get into their stride.
“If there’s parity in the set piece I think the All Blacks will get into their stride and then it’s going to be who’s the better team on the day. I’ve bought a kilogram of biltong and a kilogram of steak and two cases of south African beer and I’m heading down to Bath to sit with Francois Louw so we’re going to watch the game and I can’t wait for it. I’ve never been this excited to watch a game to be honest!”