Next summer’s British and Lions tour to New Zealand already had an air of Mission Impossible about it but it has now got even tougher.
The day before the Lions name Warren Gatland as head coach again, which they will in Edinburgh this afternoon, it emerged from New Zealand that the Super Rugby teams will be able to field their Test stars in the tour games.
A brutal schedule, which Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall has labelled as “ludicrous”, has been made yet more onerous with the news that the Blues, Crusaders and Highlanders will be “loaded up” with players expected to feature for the world champions in a Test series they are 1-4 favourites to win. The Lions have not won a series in New Zealand since 1971.
In recent history, internationals have been rested to keep them fresh to face the Lions over the three Tests that conclude the tour, but selector Grant Fox insists New Zealand will adopt a different approach for 2017. “The Super Rugby sides will be loaded up with All Blacks early because there’s a bit of time from game one to the first Test,” Fox told the New Zealand Herald newspaper. “They need to play and then as we get closer to the Tests some of those franchises will have less access to the All Blacks as we start preparing for the series.”
The tour comprises five fixtures against Super Rugby sides with the Chiefs and Hurricanes completing the list, matches against a provincial union team and the New Zealand Maori and three Tests.
Gatland, who is set to be unveiled as the Lions’ head coach in Edinburgh today, said of the itinerary in January: “It’s not un-winnable, but it’s a very, very tough schedule.”
“It’s a really tough tour. I’m not saying the Lions can’t win, it’s just a tough schedule,” Gatland continued. “It’s the hardest place in the world to go and play, from a travel and organisation perspective as well as the rugby perspective.”
Adding to the challenges facing Gatland is the timing of the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 finals seven days before the opening fixture in Whangarei on 3 June.
Gatland led an injury-hit Wales on tour to New Zealand in June and returned home with a 3-0 series defeat and 40-7 midweek rout by the Chiefs. However, that Welsh performance, which included losing scorelines of 39–21, 36-22 and 46-6 in the Tests, has gained some credibility with the subsequent All Black destructions of the Wallabies, including a record 42-8 rout in Sydney.
“Any tour of New Zealand is going to be challenging because we’ve got real talent and depth here,” Fox added. “It will be tough for them, but the difference is Wales were down to their midweek team and you’d think a midweek British and Irish Lions team would be stronger than Wales.”
Eddie Jones has enjoyed a dream start to his time as England coach, winning eight from eight after a Six Nations Grand Slam and 3-0 series win over the Wallabies earlier in the summer.
However, the Australian ruled himself out of the Lions running and now Gatland, who has the sabbatical required by the Lions written into his Wales contract, gets the nod again.