The British Empire, long thought to be dead, is about to rise from the grave and go back to doing what it did best – invading countries – for a month or so at least. But, in the form of the British & Irish Lions, they won’t be coming away with any spoils like they did back in the day.
The Lions tour of New Zealand this year will be the rugby version of the Battle of Isandlwana, but unlike the afternoon massacre by Zulus in 1879, this armageddon that’ll stretch out painfully and slowly over many weeks.
To put it simply, they haven’t got a bloody chance. Here’s why:
Exhibit A: The ruthless schedule
"I don't see how you could even win that. You're playing five Super Rugby sides, the New Zealand Māori and three tests, and another game, all in a five-week period. It's so tough."Who uttered this expert opinion? A talkback radio caller? A grizzled Kiwi rugby journo? The old bloke who’s always at the bar in the rugby club? Unfortunately for the Lions, that was Warren Gatland back in 2015 when the tour schedule was announced. That’s Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland, quoted as saying he doesn’t see how they can win.
The Lions play 10 matches in little over a month. It’s the same as the last time they toured here in 2005, except back then they were playing against Mitre 10 Cup teams missing all their All Blacks. Even then they came pretty close to defeats against Bay of Plenty, Auckland and Southland. This time around they’ll be playing against every New Zealand Super Rugby team – with the Blues and Crusaders likely at full strength – plus the Māori All Blacks.
Exhibit B: History
Forty-two percent. That’s the Lions’ all-time win record, which is not enough to pass School Certificate if you’re old enough to remember that. Of course, if you’re old enough to remember the last time they beat the All Blacks in a series then you’ll definitely remember School Certificate, along with corporal punishment, the imperial measurement system and possibly the threat of dying of polio.
The Lions’ last series win against New Zealand was in 1971, a time when the sun had definitely set on a long period of All Blacks dominance. Coming off a series loss to the Springboks the previous year, the ‘71 All Blacks were famously forced to call a retired Brian Lochore off his Wairarapa farm for a test in nearby Wellington after injuries had hit the team. Conversely, the Lions squad included some of the most well-known names in the game, all at the same time – Edwards, John, Gibson, McBride, etc.
Fast-forward through the next 46 years and the subsequent four series have only yielded two test wins for the Lions, in 1977 and 1993.
The 1983 team got thumped so badly they apparently started singing ‘We’re The Worst Lions Ever’ as they boarded the plane back to the UK.
Exhibit C: The other test match
Hamilton at night time has been the scene of some forgettable moments for a lot of people, but for the 2005 Lions it wasn’t the usual chunder on the pavement or eventual trip to the STI clinic.
That night the Māori All Blacks ambushed the British in a brutal, low scoring encounter that more closely resembled a fight between two angry blokes in a pub carpark than a rugby match. That happened three weeks into the tour in for the Lions, and it started the derailment of a train that was never going to arrive anyway as they were comfortably beaten in the three tests. This year, the Māori All Blacks will have another crack at them just a week out from the first test.
Exhibit D: The fact that the 'United' Kingdom don't actually like each other
William Shakespeare once wrote a reasonably successful play about how bitter Scotsmen can get amongst one another, but the movie Braveheart really showed the world what they think of the English.
Then there's the not-so-insignificant chip on the shoulder of the Irish for the not-so-insignificant history between them and England. Meanwhile, Wales have had to put up with the Poms giving their Principality title to a guy who cheated on his wife with Camilla Parker-Bowles before it's eventually passed on to his gormless, balding son.
Historically, Lions tours have disintegrated into the four national factions before long – even when they win. The 2013 series victory over the Wallabies was tainted somewhat by the Welsh overhaul for the third and decisive test. Included in the clean out was Irish legend Brian O'Driscoll, who let his hurt feelings known to the public before the game had even been played.
Exhibit E: The All Blacks
In case you’ve forgotten, the All Blacks are back-to-back world champions. Under current coach Steve Hansen, they’ve only lost four tests in five seasons.
And they’re playing at home. The last time the All Blacks lost in New Zealand was in 2009, when David Bain was still waiting for a retrial and everyone was listening to Ladyhawke. Two of the tests this year will be at Eden Park, where the All Blacks have enjoyed victory beers at the end of every game for the last 23 years.
The only thing that could trip the All Blacks up is a traditionally slow start to the year, but even that possibility has seemingly been wiped off the table. They play a test against Manu Samoa in the lead up to the first Lions test, which should be a perfect way to iron out any rustiness. Not that there should be any anyway, given that they’ll be 14 rounds into Super Rugby by then.
There’s also the fact that they are, man-for-man, a better team – one that’s played alongside one another for four whole seasons since the Lions last got together.
So the evidence is pretty clear. If you’re planning on putting some money on the Lions, please consider a more worthwhile charity than an online betting agency. If you’re going along to any of the tour matches and supporting the Lions, please do your best not to look too despondent, lest you run the risk of getting caught on the TV coverage and ruthlessly turned into a meme.
However, if you’re planning on buying a Lions jersey and wearing it around during the tour, please gratefully accept any sympathy beers
from local fans. New Zealanders are pretty good like that.