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Written by Mark Janzen
The odds are long. Of that, fans and pundits alike can agree.
When the British and Irish Lions step onto the hallowed pitch of Eden Park Saturday evening in Aukland’s house of rugby horrors, they’ll be staring at history, trying desperately not to blink.
Since their inaugural tour in 1888, the Lions – a cocktail of players from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland – have run out on 12 occasions with eyes set on toppling the mighty All Blacks and taking a series from the famed New Zealanders.
Over 129 years, the Lions have checked the box just once, in 1971 when the British and Irish side seized two of three Test matches from the All Blacks and scurried home as heroes. Their tour song that year, Sloop John B by the Beach Boys, instantly became a favourite refrain at rugby clubs throughout the Home Nations.
Since then, the Lions, who tour Australia, South Africa and New Zealand on a quadrennial rotation, have earned two series wins each over the Wallabies and Springboks, but in their last four trips to visit the All Blacks, they’ve returned home wanting.
This year, the Lions side has dreams of making their 13th trip to the Kiwi nation a lucky one. With three matches in the offing, the task is two victories.
The All Blacks, who just a week ago knocked off Samoa 78-0 in a pre-series Test match, loom large.
For the Lions, that’s nothing new.
Starting in the 19th century, the Lions began touring the triune of southern hemispheric countries in the name of the northern hemisphere and the Home Nations. Since the beginning, the team has been a prestigious enterprise in which the best British and Irish rugby players aspire to earn the call. Donning the red jersey has become a symbol of both individual establishment and a source of great pride.
As the tour gained prominence in the public eye – the 1971 series victory stands as a watershed moment of the Lions increasing in popularity – it also became a bastion of unique competition. At one time, the Lions arrived with an expansive style of play that impressed the world, while today’s efforts illustrates the perpetual tourists imposing a physical brand of hard-charging rugby that contrasts the flashy, off-loading flair of the All Blacks.
With tens of the thousands of fans from the home unions traversing the globe to follow their Lions – the tour always includes a bevy of warmup contests against some of the host country’s best club or selection sides – the series has long become a quintessential part of the fabric of rugby around the world. It’s a coming together of players from various nations in an effort to put on a great show, connect with the local populous – beyond their efforts on the pitch, the Lions will visit schools, hospitals and other community organizations – and, of course, represent the birth place of rugby union.
With this year’s Test series-opener on the cusp, the Lions mission persists: win a series in New Zealand against the world champion All Blacks for just the second time ever.
Further to that undertaking for the Lions is attempting to beat the hosts in Eden Park – a stadium that hasn’t witnessed an All Blacks loss in 38 straight outings and 23 years. The last team to do that was France in 1994.
The weatherman has said that the conditions won’t be great come Saturday. That likely bodes well for the physically imposing Lions who are coming off a tidy 34-6 midweek win over the Super Rugby-playing Chiefs. But then again, it’s the All Blacks and it’s Eden Park
If the Lions, who have earned four wins from six outings in the lead-up to the Test matches, have dreams of doing something magical over the next two weeks, a victory on the first swing is all but imperative. Ask most experts and they’ll say it’s highly unlikely. Better yet, ask Samoa.
But with the rosters recently announced for the much-anticipated series launch, fireworks have been readied and indeed a spectacle appears on the horizon.
Can the Lions do the improbable? Few teams knock off the All Blacks in New Zealand. Even fewer do it twice in little more than a fortnight.
But 46 years of struggle has to end sometime. Or does it?
British and Irish Lions
Replacements: 16. Ken Owens, 17. Jack McGrath, 18. Kyle Sinckler, 19. Maro Itoje, 20. Sam Warburton, 21. Rhys Webb, 22. Jonathan Sexton, 23. Leigh Halfpenny.
Replacements: 16. Nathan Harris, 17. Wyatt Crockett, 18. Charlie Faumuina, 19. Scott Barrett, 20. Ardie Savea, 21. TJ Perenara, 22. Aaron Cruden/Lima Sopoaga, 23. Anton Lienert-Brown.
June 24 – Lions vs. All Blacks – 12:35 a.m. (PDT)
July 1 – Lions vs. All Blacks – 12:35 a.m. (PDT)
July 8 – Lions vs. All Blacks – 12:35 a.m. (PDT)