Rugby Union: Lions may be helped by hard schedule: Toughest tour in prospect

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The Independent Online
THE LIONS had hardly disembarked at Auckland airport than they were asked, incredulously, why they had accepted such an itinerary. The answer was that they had not; the administrators back home had, a long time ago.

'The itinerary was fixed long before we were appointed and we just have to accept it,' Geoff Cooke, the Lions manager, responded to the collective disbelief of the New Zealand media, though he did also point out that their incredulity was shared in the British Isles.

Quite apart from three Tests in four Saturdays, the Lions' nine provincial opponents include seven from the First Division with the Ranfurly Shield holders, Auckland, on the Saturday between the first and second Tests. For good measure, Waikato, New Zealand's national champions, are placed in midweek between the second and third.

'This is the hardest tour ever undertaken by the Lions,' John Dawes, the winning captain in the 1971 series here, said. 'In the past, tours to New Zealand and South Africa were longer and weaker matches were thrown in to take the pressure off.'

When Dawes led the Lions, their tour consisted of 26 matches including four Tests; when he was the Lions coach in 1977 it was also 26 and four. No such luxury this time.

Now it is 13 and, starting with North Auckland in Whangarei on Saturday, the Lions must hit the ground running. Previous Lions would have had to face all these and more but never in such a rush. Where Gavin Hastings's squad will ultimately have been on tour less than two months, Mike Campbell-

Lamerton's in 1966 were gone nearly five months and played 33 matches.

Yesterday they finally had their first outdoor training, an intensive two hours at nearby Kawakawa not attended by the wing Tony Underwood, whose ear infection had

become a sore throat, and not completed by the No 8 Dean Richards, who said his sore foot would not prevent his participation in either of today's sessions.

They have only six matches before the first Test in Christchurch on 12 June. 'There's a fair amount of talent in the side; the difficulty is bringing it out quickly, in a structured way so that we can be effective from the word go,' Ian McGeechan, the coach, said. 'The thing that's missing is a couple of easy games.'

But now we are told it could have been worse. 'It's not as demanding a schedule as the Lions would have had a few years ago,' Laurie Mains, the New Zealand coach, said. He meant that at least the tourists had the luxury of a relatively mild initiation against Second Division opposition.

It could have been Auckland. On the other hand, North Auckland have improved beyond recognition since they went out of the First Division and lost to England B last season. And in any case then the fun really begins, because the Lions go on to North Harbour, national championship semi-finalists; followed by the Maoris, who will be as physically punishing as anything on this tour; and Otago, the championship runners-up.

The apparent cruelty of the Lions' build-up may turn out to have been a kindness. 'It's good that they've got this itinerary,' Sid Going, the former All Blacks scrum-half who coaches North Auckland, insisted. 'When I went to South Africa with the All Blacks (in 1976) we had a couple of games when we put 50 or 60 points on opponents but when it came to the Test series we just weren't prepared enough. Big wins can be self-defeating.'

Is it any wonder, then, that Dawes should regard this trip as hard