By Richard McElwee
“I call it the Last Great Tour,” Brent Pope remarks as he speaks with Séan O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio One on Tuesday.
Isa Nacewa, Leinster’s captain, sits beside him and nods in agreement.
“You can’t see any coach agreeing to that itinerary against all the top franchises again,” Pope continues. “To give all the players a match, to assess what your team might be and to win games is going be very difficult.”
“It’s going to be a phenomenal series!” Nacewa exclaims. “But would I like to go down and play the Maori, the five New Zealand franchises and three Test matches in a row? No. It is going to be a brutal tour. The Crusaders haven’t been beaten so far in Super Rugby. The Highlanders, the Hurricanes and the Chiefs are all on fire. The Blues are bottom of the New Zealand teams but are still better than any Australian team. Every single side will also be stacked with players released by the All Blacks.”
Not an easy task then lies ahead for Warren Gatland’s squad which features 11 Irish members – all of whom stand a reasonable chance of making the Test XV. However, once the Lions kick off against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on Saturday (just three days after arriving in Auckland), nine bruising games will follow thick and fast meaning that there are likely to be several new faces joining the camp over the coming weeks. The prospect of being away from home for seven weeks at the end of a long and tiring season also adds to the challenge.
“We’ve all been on rugby tours where you’ve got to gel together quickly,” Pope says. “There’ll be some guys who go through loneliness, homesickness, other guys go through disappointments, ups and down with injuries – it’s how that team come together that will determine the success of the tour. Who do you go and talk to if you miss out on the first team and you think that you should have been there? How do you avoid the cliques?”
“People don’t realise what the Lions are going to get out there,” Pope asserts. “Every New Zealander will be thinking this will be their big opportunity: ‘I’ve one chance against against the Lions and I’m going to take it.’ They’re also going to be told everywhere they go, even by little old ladies with umbrellas, how they should be playing the game. Rugby is everything in New Zealand.”
With first-hand experience of the tour, albeit from the other side of the fence, Nacewa is well aware of the pressures that attach to games of this nature. The Auckland native lined out for his home province at Eden Park in 2005 when only a late Ronan O’Gara penalty secured victory and saved the tourist’s blushes. “It was the closest thing to the biggest game of our lives,” he reflects. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to play the Lions and that’s how these guys will think.