Super Rugby franchises prepare for British and Irish Lions challenge

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As the months, weeks and finally days have dwindled, the inbound British and Irish Lions tour is becoming more apparent for the ‘home sides’. Of course the All Blacks will be at the forefront, however the 10 match tour schedule includes a near-International challenge for the Lions: five Super Rugby franchises prepare for their once in a 12 year chance to make history.

For that single night, the New Zealand franchise teams will have a totally different opponent facing them. It will be the next step-up, with former players like Tana Umaga (see main picture) able to share his experiences of 2005, to a new generation of Super Rugby players.

After matching themselves for 14 rounds of competition with Australian, South African or Japanese/Argentinian sides, the emphasis now trends upward. Those five sides will meet full International players, test veterans and that will require a higher plane of attention, and preparation.

Super Rugby Franchises Prepare for British and Irish Lions Challenge

This weekend, Round 15 matches coincide with the opening tour game of the British and Irish Lions. At Whangarei, the Provincial Barbarians will open the tour. On that same weekend, the Blues play on the Friday night, the Highlanders visit the Crusaders, the Chiefs host the Waratahs and the Hurricanes visit Perth; so all teams have to maintain focus for now.

All have been in an intense assault on the 2017 Super Rugby championship, and then along comes a Lions fixture. Boom! The barometer of intensity goes way up, as the full media glare will first land on the Blues team on Tuesday, followed by the remaining franchises.

Out Play. Out Passion. Out Roar!

From the tour schedules inception by New Zealand Rugby (NZR) who approached the British and Irish Lions with the concept of matching all five Super Rugby sides. To their credit, they accepted that challenge. So with the franchises being informed, it must have seemed a monumental assignment. But ‘once signed’ it would see all those Super Rugby franchises prepare for British and Irish Lions challenge.

And what a challenge. Two factors were applicable: (1) what condition would the players be in?, and (2) how can you defeat the combined forces of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland?

In a way, it is a tough ask all around. But to the credit of the organizers and planners, the marketing blitz launched the tagline “Out Roar”. For the supporters to out-roar the loud traveling support of the Lions team. Attracting a huge support-base, so to combat that fans of each franchise are asked to “be there”. Not only that, the home fans need to raise their voices; to “be heard” but so too the home teams also need to ‘put up their best’.

Game #1 – Blues v British and Irish Lions (BIL) – Eden Park, Auckland. June 7

Tana Umaga, the last captain of the 2005 tour, will this time coach the Blues franchise. That familiarity [to a degree] will be a motivating factor. Your leader knows how to beat them, so it will uplifting. And while the Auckland team are again outside the knockout stages, this game could be a form of redemption.

As this is the second game of the tour, and with only three days rest since the Provincial Barbarians, the visitors line-up will be important. If the likes of Owen Farrell (see below), George Kruis or Rory Best are selected, then the equivalent Blues players will face their biggest challenge ever.

Some have said that the home side will either put out their best side–as they face no further matches until Saturday July 15–or, they focus entirely on winning their Friday night match in Apia, and then put out only a representative side on Tuesday. Respectfully, fans will hope it is their ‘first XV’ featuring Sonny Bill Williams that run out. That they play with pride, and whatever the outcome, do themselves proud.

Auckland have always been ‘a thorn in the Lions side’ with a tremendous record of upsetting the tourists.

Plus, it will be a practice run for Warren Gatland, as his men become accustom to the Eden Park surface; three games occur there on this tour.

Crusaders v BIL – AMI Stadium, Christchurch. June 10

In many ways, this is the form side to beat. Unbeaten in Super Rugby [as of the date of publishing] so it will be a real fight. Stuart Barnes believes this will be the first appearance of any top-flight Lions selection, and will have the full weight of traveling media in attendance. So the fans in Christchurch, Lions supporters plus the Crusaders players, expect a real treat.

The style of game they play may rely on conditions–as in years past, the wet grounds seem to a stock-standard brand of rugby–but if it is Dry, expect a real barnbuster of a tour match!

Highlanders v BIL – Forsyth-Barr Stadium, Dundedin. June 13

This side will welcome the tourists to arguably the best stadium in the country. Under the roof of Forsyth-Barr, it will allow for a running rugby. If both sides adopt this mantra, then the fans on hand will see a terrific match.

For the home nation, they believed a Samoa International warm-up game was required. So a Pacifika challenge has been embraced as a more competitive option than opposed training; similar to how Super Rugby teams will prepare the Lions. Unfortunately, if will likely rob the Highlanders of several All Blacks: Ben Smith included.

That aside, it should be one match the Lions may focus on, in preparation before the all important, unofficial fourth test – NZ Maori v BIL – Rotorua International Stadium. June 17.

Chiefs v BIL – FMG Stadium, Hamilton. June 20

After the fierce challenge of the Maori, this game might not be quite as a relaxing fixture that the old traditional provincial match may be. No Thames Valley, or Bay of Plenty on this tour. No, ‘from the heater to the fireplace’ for Warren Gatland’s men. The [sometime Wales coach] former Mooloo man in-fact has history with the Chiefs. Wales had a poor result in 2016, so the Chiefs fans will be the most expectant of all the franchise teams.

The Chiefs perform a haka before the International Test match between the Chiefs and Wales at Waikato Stadium on June 14, 2016 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Also, with coach Dave Rennie and hooker Hikawera Elliot (see above top left) leaving the franchise, it will be an emotional evening. The traditional haka; which apparently every Super Rugby side will perform) will take on a huge status. the Waikato side will want to send off their coach with another International scalp.
(First Test – Eden Park, Auckland. June 24)

Hurricanes v BIL – Westpac Stadium, Wellington. June 27

This fixture has a similar meaning to the above. The Westpac Stadium environment should see it full…and it should have vivid memories for Lions players and management. The scene of a virtuoso performance from Dan Carter in 2005, they will want a good performance to ‘erase that memory’.

The midweek fixture sits in between tests one and two. And with their All Blacks not available, the mix of established Super Rugby veterans like Brad Shields and Cory Jane still makes this side a threat, but possibly with their midfield held down, then the denial of front-foot ball might repeat the same result when the ‘Canes played the Crusaders. It seemed a good tactic and halted the Hurricanes ability to score tries, and Gatland will have noted that weakness.

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And so, after going through the best of the Super Rugby franchises, the visiting British and Irish Lions then play the second test; July 1. If they have done the impossible, and beaten the All Blacks on Eden Park, then playing two games in succession at the ‘caketin’ in Wellington will be a solid base to attack from. Six days in the capital is good preparation.

Wellington IRB Sevens Day One
A general view of Westpac Stadium (Photo by Marty Melville/Getty Images)

And those Super Rugby sides faced may, or may not, have performed admirably. All are proud clubs. Not in the way that a province is, but still with the same unity and team culture. All five will put their hearts on the line. And likewise, fans of those teams will wear their colours proudly, and the spectacle will only add to the legend of the touring Lions team.

A once in every 12 year event. And this time, it gets a ‘Super Boom-Boom’ treatment.

“Main photo credit”