Lions roar into Pit with menacing intent

Click to follow

It is perfectly possible for a British and Irish Lions side to lose the opening match of a tour and still take their place in rugby lore as that rarest of sporting jewels: a winning team. The 1971 breed proved as much, prevailing over the All Blacks for the first and only time after going belly-up against Queensland during a brief stopover in Australia ­ a result that persuaded the local coach, Des Connor, to label them the worst squad ever to cross the Equator. Whoops, never mind.

Few of the 30,000 New Zealanders sardining themselves into the Rotorua International Stadium ­ known as the "Hangi Pit" ­ today seriously expect Bay of Plenty to perform a Queensland on the 2005 vintage, coached and captained as the visitors are by a World Cup-winning ground-breaker in Sir Clive Woodward and a low-slung genius of an outside-centre in Brian O'Driscoll. Thirty-four years ago, the Lions pitched up in Brisbane in an advanced state of jet lag. The current team could not conceivably be better prepared. But the Lions do expect to be tested, which makes a change. On the 1997 tour of South Africa, they met a scratch Eastern Province side and won at a canter. In 2001, they put a century on Western Australia in a match so one-sided that it should be erased from the records.

Bay of Plenty are nobody's idea of a pushover, so a convincing victory for the tourists would put them in an excellent frame of mind for the rigours ahead: next Saturday's meeting with the Maori, a nasty-looking midweek game with Wellington and three climactic contests with the All Blacks themselves.

"We think most of the sides we face on this tour will counter-attack in the style of the All Blacks and the Canterbury Crusaders," said Andy Robinson, the head coach of England and one of Woodward's principal back-room lieutenants here. "So if we kick poorly, chase badly and turn over the ball, we can expect teams to kill us. This game is all about showing some composure in possession and establishing an effective set piece. These are the key things are far as I'm concerned."

The Lions showed precious little composure during their warm-up international with Argentina in Cardiff 12 days ago, and their scrummage that night was worryingly shambolic until Julian White, the tight-head ogre from Leicester, materialised from the replacements' bench. Today, the Lions have a pair of young props in Gethin Jenkins and Matt Stevens, and their performances will be significant ­ not merely in terms of subduing a Bay of Plenty side renowned for putting it about, but in the context of the entire tour.

White tends not to stay fit for long, and he has been known to go quiet. The tourists may need practical alternatives.

Adrian Cashmore, the former All Black full-back and the most experienced hand in the Bay of Plenty team, says his colleagues have no intention of being treated as "rugby guinea pigs" by the Lions, but the tourists are not in the mood for experimentation. Woodward has named a strong combination ­ at a conservative estimate, 10 of the starting line-up might expect a Test place in Christchurch three weeks from today.

This game is about "making a statement", to use the Lions' parlance. Eddie O'Sullivan of Ireland, another of the élite coaches working with the Saturday side, acknowledged that Bay of Plenty would also have something to say for themselves.

"They'll hit us hard and they'll hit us early," he remarked. "We can't afford to be shocked or surprised by it. Discipline will be important. We let ourselves down in this respect against the Argentinians, so we must make sure we use that experience as a marker."

Any victory in the 20-point region will be welcome. Only once in four attempts have the Lions beaten a Bay of Plenty side with something to spare, and their 34-16 victory in 1983 was not without its trials and tribulations, as those who witnessed the all-in brawl that disfigured the game would readily confirm. The locals will be strong in the back five of the scrum ­ great things are expected of their No 8, Colin Bourke ­ and if Kevin Senio, their terrific half-back, is given the run of the park, the tourists will be in trouble.

Most of the smart money is on a convincing Lions win, however. As Richard Hill, the Saracens flanker completing his full hand of British Isles tours, said yesterday: "Bay of Plenty see this as a big chance, but it's a big chance for us too. Let's make sure we take it. No one needs motivating for this game. We know exactly how much is at stake."

Rotorua teams

Bay of Plenty

15 A Cashmore

14 F Bolavucu

13 A Bunting

12 G McQuoid

11 A Tahana

10 M Williams

9 K Senio

1 S Davison

2 A Lutui

3 B Castle

4 M Sorenson

5 B Upton

6 W Ormond (capt)

7 N Latu

8 C Bourke

Replacements: J Pareanga; T Filise; P Tupai; W Smith; C Hubbard; R Moon; A Stewart

British and Irish Lions

15 J Lewsey (England)

14 M Cueto (England)

13 B O'Driscoll (Irl, capt)

12 G Henson (Wales)

11 T Shanklin (Wales)

10 R O'Gara (Ireland)

9 D Peel (Wales)

1 G Jenkins (Wales)

2 G Bulloch (Scotland)

3 M Stevens (England)

4 P O'Connell (Ireland)

5 B Kay (England)

6 R Hill (England)

7 M Williams (Wales)

8 L Dallaglio (England)

Replacements: S Thompson; A Sheridan (both England); D O'Callaghan (Ireland); M Corry; M Dawson; C Hodgson (all England); G D'Arcy (Ireland).

Referee: P Honiss (N Zealand)

Kick-Off: 8.10am (Sky Sports 1)