Rugby Union: Mighty Auckland provide extra test for tourists: In New Zealand one team has proved themselves invincible. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
THE Taranaki game was but an interlude for the Lions between their first Test against New Zealand and their one-off test on Saturday against Auckland, the mightiest provincial team in the rugby world. The Lions ought to realise that this opposition could well be superior to the All Blacks.

True, Auckland lost the Super 10 final to Transvaal in Johannesburg last month but that was by a whisker and as all their players had gone to South Africa straight from an All Blacks trial it would have been a wondrous achievement had they won. What makes them special is that in the strongest provincial rugby on earth they have a record that no one else has ever approached.

Even though there has been a National Championship since 1978, it is the Ranfurly Shield that is indelibly associated with New Zealand rugby. The Auks have made 59 successful defences since they took 'The Log' from Canterbury in 1985, a figure that makes the previous record of that Canterbury team and the Auckland team of the Sixties, 25, seem puny.

They have won the National Championship seven times in 11 years, routinely supply at least half of the New Zealand team (in last Saturday's Test it was eight) and in the 11 years since John Hart became coach have won 182 of their 207 games. The majority of the 17 defeats were in the early pre- Shield years while Hart was still pulling Auckland together.

Hart was succeeded by an Englishman, Maurice Trapp, and while the former Harlequin was in charge in the late Eighties and early Nineties Auckland lost just three of 89 matches, an astounding record. Only Auckland, now coached by Graham Henry, could regard last season's three defeats in 17 matches, and with it the loss to Waikato of the Championship, as a poor record. The Super 10 final is the only defeat in seven matches this season.

This is what the Lions will be up against on Saturday and explains why Auckland routinely defeat touring teams. The 1983 Lions lost to only two provinces and the Auks were one. Last year, Auckland amassed 62 points against Ireland one week before the All Blacks were fortunate to scrape a 24-21 win in the first Test.

The standards Auckland have set will never be equalled once they finally lose their grip on the Shield, though goodness knows when that will be. The problem is that the

predominance of one province is having an adverse effect on public interest, especially in the city of Auckland where success has become such a matter of course that hardly anyone turns up for most Shield fixtures.

This is one reason the Lions are so important to the New Zealand Rugby Union, which has been gratified by the frenzy of attention their visitors have been receiving everywhere they have been, not least in Taranaki this week.

Contrast the pitiful 8,000 who watched the Auks' Ranfurly Shield defence against Hawke's Bay 12 days ago with Auckland's expectations for the Lions. The Eden Park Test on 3 July is already a 48,000 sell-out and Saturday's match may attract as many as 40,000. They will take an Auckland win for granted.