SPORT TODAY: New Zealand tour a difficult challenge for Gatland and his British Lions

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The British and Irish Lions are here. But will they roar? It is actually very difficult to know. I sense this test series will be closer than many New Zealanders think.

Already I’ve been told the All Blacks will win each test by 30 to 40 points — “bank on it”.

And who could really blame a New Zealand rugby fan for this supreme level of confidence? After all, there isn’t much competition from even old foes these days (more on that later).

I’ll admit I’m not au fait with many in the Lions, having not watched much Six Nations rugby, but know coach Warren Gatland has built his squad around the all-conquering England team, and has the best of the rest at his disposal.

There is greater depth in each position than there was in 2005 when the Lions were here last, and that is because we have seen an improvement in standard across the board in the four countries represented.

He has chosen his Welsh captain Sam Warburton to lead and, while this decision was hotly debated in Britain, it is a safe and pragmatic call to go with someone who has served him well for Wales and is clearly a very good leader of men.

On the other side, many of New Zealand’s key players may be underdone come the first test at the end of the month.

Captain Keiran Read is in a tight race to be ready after thumb surgery, and important cogs Dane Coles and Jerome Kaino have both had extensive time out this season through injury.

Many other All Blacks are carrying injuries, and whilst the selectors are not fretting, they’d have to be at least concerned they may not have their best players available for all three tests.

Former Lion and now Sky Sports UK pundit Stuart Barnes recently told Radio Sport he thinks a successful tour would include a test win and victory over four of the five Super Rugby franchises and the New Zealand Maori side.

He went as far as saying a test series win would be a greater achievement than England winning the World Cup in 2003.

That’s probably a fair indication as to how difficult the challenge is for Gatland in New Zealand. And history backs that up, with the 1971 John Dawes-captained Lions team the only one to win a test series here.

Really though, it is the test results that remain in the memory, and that will ultimately be what this tour is judged upon.

For the Lions to win the test series they must win at least one in Auckland. With no test in the South Island, two will be played at Eden Park, which has become a graveyard for any opponent of the All Blacks. Not since a defeat to France in 1994 has New Zealand been beaten there.

You’d think the Lions would at least have to win the second test in Wellington to make this a series, otherwise they’d be relying on defying history twice in a fortnight.

I think this tour has come at exactly the right time for rugby fans in New Zealand. Games against Australia and South Africa don’t carry the intrigue they once did and have become awfully predictable.

True rivalries can only thrive if the results aren’t consistently one-sided, and the All Blacks’ dominance over our greatest adversaries has become worryingly pernicious.

I think we could be in for a cracking series, and can’t wait to see how good the tourists really are come the first test on June 24.

All things aside, the All Blacks should prevail but don’t bank on it being a cake-walk. We only get the Lions here every 12 years so let’s hope we see something special.

 

Short Passes . . .

 

David Kidwell is surely on thin ice as Kiwis league coach. One win from six starts is a poor record, but he looks out of his depth every time he talks publicly.

He was less than convincing in his version of events that led to the suspensions of captain Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor, and has clearly allowed personal standards to slip since he’s had the team. Only a win at the World Cup this year will save his job.

 

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As exciting as the Cavaliers-Warriors match-up is in the finals, the NBA play-offs have been a snore in comparison to the NHL. The ice hockey has had more action, a better series, and better coverage. It really is a great watch at this time of the season.

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