Rugby Union: All Black anxiety over weathered leviathan Lions: Rain may tip balance away from New Zealand side looking light on ground. Steve Bale reports from Paihia

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The Independent Online
New Zealanders have a presumption of rugby superiority which can be irritating but, given the consistent ascendancy of their All Black teams, is at least as understandable as the inferiority complex of British Isles rugby. We have, as you might say, much to feel inferior about: various 'British' teams since 1904 have won only five and drawn three of 32 Tests in New Zealand.

So when the British Isles tour party was announced in March, it was entirely predictable that it would be rubbished at its destination. Too old, too slow, too tough an itinerary - the doubts mildly expressed in the home countries were nothing compared with the cast-iron certainty of the reaction here. No-hopers.

But what's this? Now that the Lions have actually arrived, now that they have been seen in the flesh, the piece of cake has become something rather less appetising. After all, the young and gifted All Blacks may not find it so simple against all that experience, all that size. 'New Zealand,' as the tour captain, Gavin Hastings, put it, 'isn't the place for novices. With age comes experience, and there's an awful lot of experience in the party.' Ergo, a lot of age.

And if it should rain (which it does rather a lot in New Zealand) the advantage, so they keep saying, immediately swings to the leviathan Lion forwards . . . which for Kiwis hardly bears contemplating. So there has been a perceptible switch of opinion this week, reflected in a canvass of significant All Blacks opinion.

Lo and behold, amid palpable optimism that an exceptional new generation of players has come through in time to face the Lions, they are genuinely concerned about the Lions and about the complacency with which the tourists have been anticipated.

'I'm fed up with people running the Lions down,' Ian Jones, the New Zealand lock who will lead North Auckland in Saturday's tour opener in Whangarei, said. 'I wish they'd shut their mouths because they're just playing into the Lions' hands. They'll come out against the All Blacks with all guns blazing.'

The Lions would have been perfectly happy for the careless talk to continue, but in fact they have heard little of it since reaching the Bay of Islands. Indeed, the alternative viewpoint is gladly put by all three of the New Zealand selectors from coach Laurie Mains downwards.

For instance, Earle Kirton is a former Harlequin with a sufficiently sound knowledge of British Isles rugby to treat the Lions with due respect: 'I'm astonished people believe these blokes will be easy. I've never known a weak Lions team with the possible exception of the '83 mob.'

As it happened, even Ciaran Fitzgerald's whitewashed team of 1983 lost none of the first three Tests by more than nine points, so perhaps they were not quite as bad as Kirton remembers. It was only in the fourth, when they were destroyed 38-6, that their inadequacies were exposed.

'I hear the comments that they've selected the wrong side,' Kirton added. 'What if it rains? They've clearly looked at the conditions they can expect here in June and July and decided they'd need big men for them. And if it's wet, their ability to play it pretty close among the forwards will make them very difficult to counter, no matter whether we have great skill and vision among our loose forwards or not.'

This rather ignores the pace and vision of the Lions backs but articulates the preponderant feeling here that the tour strategy will be heavily forward- orientated. As does this from Mains: 'People bagging this Lions side don't know rugby. They've got an awful amount of forward power there. It would indicate a style of play that may not be all that exciting but will be difficult to combat.

'Having said that, there's a lot of ability in their backs and, with Robert Jones and Stuart Barnes in the halves, they are capable of playing a very open game. It's a very balanced side with the ability to play either style.'

Nevertheless, it is the Lions pack rather than a potentially explosive back division that most concern Mains. 'I see their major strength being their tight five. They're very big when it comes to line-out time and very powerful when it comes to mauling and scrummaging.'

Back to the elements, and the third selector, Peter Thorburn: 'It concerns me that weather forecasters are predicting a very wet North Island and a cold South Island over the next three months. They would certainly be advantaged if we tried to play them in orthodox fashion in the wet.'

But then New Zealand are bullish enough, confident in the ability of the group of players who have emerged from a year of development, to know that this is precisely what they will not do. Mains is committed to expansive rugby and the All Black trials in Rotorua last Sunday revealed outstanding handling skills and tactical ambition quite out of keeping with the three and a half inches of rain that was falling there in 24 hours.

The optimism here is palpable. Sid Going, a nonpareil All Blacks scrum- half who will have an early sight of the Lions as coach of North Auckland, can scarcely contain himself: 'New Zealand have greater strength in depth than any country in the world. That's why we will take over from Australia as the world's No 1.'

We will know better after the three Tests against the British Isles whether that will be as soon as the one-off match against the Wallabies in Dunedin on 17 July. Whatever happens, though, Mains promises that his All Blacks will never revert to the dour predictability of too many of their predecessors.

Where ends used to justify the means of New Zealand sides, bludgeon more than rapier, Mains accepts a broader responsibility than merely winning which it is inconceivable the Lions would share. 'I can guarantee one thing: we will take the field determined to play with a positive attitude. If the Lions do the same, it will be a cracking series.' But that depends on your definition of positive.

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