O'Driscoll in for rough trip round the Bay

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The Independent Online

The Lions were making the three-hour drive from Auckland to Rotorua today for a powhiri: a traditional New Zealand welcome featuring waiata songs, kapahaka dances and, perhaps appropriately, the karakia, which means prayer. When the tourists return to the town next weekend for their opening match with Bay of Plenty, they will receive another kind of welcome - one they will have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding.

The Lions were making the three-hour drive from Auckland to Rotorua today for a powhiri: a traditional New Zealand welcome featuring waiata songs, kapahaka dances and, perhaps appropriately, the karakia, which means prayer. When the tourists return to the town next weekend for their opening match with Bay of Plenty, they will receive another kind of welcome - one they will have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding.

Those who assume the Lions' initial opponents will lay down and die at the first glimpse of Brian O'Driscoll in a red shirt should assume again. Bay of Plenty may not be among the glamour-pusses of the New Zealand provincial scene but they finished third of 12 in the domestic tournament and, for three glorious weeks, were the custodians of the Ranfurly Shield, a prize for which reasonable men down the decades have been prepared to kill. They are nobody's pushovers.

Neither are Taranaki, another top-five province, or Wellington, who finished at the head of the National Provincial Championship eight months ago before seeing the title slip away in the Grand Final. As the Maori themselves are also among the tourists' early opponents and intend to field their strongest team in recent memory, the itinerary appears to have been planned in hell rather than in heaven. Four years ago in Australia, the Lions rattled up 200 points in their first two matches. Here in New Zealand, they will do well to manage a fifth of that.

"I don't mean to sound trite, but every game is a big game in these parts," said Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach and one of Sir Clive Woodward's principal lieutenants. "New Zealand is unique in this regard. It's kitchen-sink rugby and we have to get our heads around that very quickly." Andy Robinson, the England coach and another of Woodward's back-room staff, was thinking along similar lines. "Each game will put us in a tough environment," he agreed. "It will be good for us."

Good? Only if the Lions generate some momentum in the half-dozen matches leading into the First Test in Christchurch on 25 June. They thought they would be up and running already, having put a minimum of 40 points on Argentina in Cardiff six days ago, but the Pumas, inexperienced but as proud and committed as could be, refused to co-operate. With the possible exception of Jonny Wilkinson, no Lion played himself into Test contention. Sadly, three or four of his colleagues went close to playing themselves out of it.

The last thing the Lions need is to destabilise themselves, for New Zealanders are queueing up to do it for them. Indeed, the phoney-war has already kicked in. Graham Henry, the acerbic coach of the All Blacks, went on television yesterday to suggest that New Zealand players would be "bored" by the type of rugby commonly played in the British Isles. Meanwhile, the Bay of Plenty chief executive Paul Abbot castigated the visitors for failing to commit themselves to the off-field community work common to previous tours.

"It's very disappointing," Abbot said after learning that the Lions would not be pitching up in his neck of the woods until the day before the match. "You think back to past tours and the way the Lions players got out into the community, built some bridges and fostered rugby. But let's face it, this is very much a professional, corporate approach. They're here for 80 minutes of rugby and that's it."

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