Haka overkill will mean it’s now more likely to result in boredom than intimidation, writes Allan Massie.
All the provincial teams are going to perform the haka to greet the Lions; usually, only the Maoris and the All Blacks do that. Warren Gatland says this is fine: the Lions will have got accustomed to it and won’t be intimidated. Much is being made of the demanding schedule. Fair enough, but the schedule of a Lions tour ought to be demanding. A Lions squad is composed of what are thought to be the best players from four countries. They shouldn’t look for easy matches.
In theory, the first game against the “Provincial Barbarians”, a scratch side, is supposed to be the easy one. Actually, given that the Lions will have flown across the world and been in New Zealand scarcely long enough to have found their feet, it may have proved by the time you read this as tough as any. The Lions have a habit of struggling in their opening match.The great ’71 side lost to Queensland 15-11 on the way to NZ and the Queensland coach, Des Connor, declared they were “hopeless: undoubtedly the worst team ever to come here”.
Gatland has fielded his three Scots in this first game. This may not be kind or generous. In South Africa in 2009 the Lions forwards were so poor in the opening match that Mike Blair had a horrible time behind the scrum, and was never given another real chance to show what he could do. Let’s hope today’s Scots fare/have fared better.
It’s likely that Gatland already has a fair idea of what his Test XV and replacements will be – or at least what he would like them to be. That’s natural. However he hasn’t , like Graham Henry in 2001, made the mistake of showing his hand, and making it clear to half the touring squad that they are there for the Provincial matches, not the Tests. There are, of course, always a few tourists who know, or suspect, that they start low in the pecking order, but it seems that they are, for now anyway, being encouraged to believe they aren’t condemned to stay there.
Of course what we are waiting to see is the style in which the Lions will play, or try to play. Those of us with long memories believe that the Lions are there not only to try to win, but to play with style and appeal to the imagination. We might even say this is more important than winning. In the past New Zealanders might not have agreed. Only a handful of them were embarrassed in 1959 when the All Blacks won the First Test 18-17 with their mighty full back Don Clarke kicking six penalties, while the Lions scored five tries , only one converted, New Zealand rugby was hard and efficient but stodgy in those days, and the Lions seemed like a breath of fresh air – which was why the doyen of NZ rugby writers , Terry McLean, wrote so lyrically about the wonderful skills of Ken Scotland. Things are different now of course. Today’s All Blacks play wonderfully fast, expansive and inventive rugby. Can the Lions match that? The fear is that Gatland will try to play a power game, grinding out victory. The fear may be misplaced, but this is rather the way his Welsh team has tended to play, which is why so many in Wales will be quite happy when the Gatland-Howley regime departs. An ungrateful response, you may say, because Gatland has brought Wales a lot of success. Nevertheless there’s a belief in the Prinicipality that it’s not enough to win;you must win with flair. There’s a streak of Rugby romanticism in Wales, and in last week’s Guinness Pro12 final they saw the Scarlets play in the style that they believe is properly Welsh, reminiscent of the glory years of the Seventies. I have long suspected that Rhys Patchell is the best Welsh fly-half today; he looked like it in Dublin. But he hasn’t much appealed to Warren Gatland.
Meanwhile Scotland leave today for their own challenging tour, Gregor Townsend’s first in charge. Italy in Singapore, Australia in Sydney, Fiji in Suva; almost as demanding a schedule as the Lions’. If we win two of the three Tests it will be a considerable achievement. If we do it in style, even better.