Belfast Telegraph

Willie John McBride fears for Lions in such a hectic tour schedule


By Jonathan Bradley

With only one victorious British and Irish Lions trip to New Zealand having been launched from these shores in the 129-year history of rugby's most famous tourists, it is only a select few who can really say they know what it takes to come together quickly and beat the best in their own backyard.

And after the 2017 squad's stuttering start, one of the most famous of that meagre few attests that Warren Gatland's men have had their gargantuan task made all the more difficult.

The legendary figure of Willie John McBride, a veteran of five tours and the second-row enforcer in 1971 when the Lions won a four-game Test series over the All Blacks by two games to one, longs for the days of old when tours would provide the visitors with months of preparation to gel before the most crucial fixtures, something not afforded to today's professionals.

The current Lions arrived in the southern hemisphere only last week and, after 24 hours of travel, they failed to impress in their tour opener against the Provincial Barbarians on Saturday and lost to the Blues in Auckland yesterday.

But as McBride recalls, even the side that are arguably the greatest Lions collective of them all, struggled to adapt upon arrival, with the Ballymena man believing that the condensed nature of this trip has captain Sam Warburton and co. facing a near-impossible challenge.

"In 1971, we played our first game after a few days as well and we lost," said the man who still cuts a towering figure despite having turned 77 this week.

"I remember half-time of that game against Queensland in Australia and feeling like I needed to lie down.

"It takes you at least seven days to feel right again after going over there.

"The Lions are only going to be getting there now and they've already played twice. If you're going to have a proper Lions tour, and I don't regard this as a proper tour, you have to have at least 12 or 14 games with a proper build in to the Test matches."

The Lions sponsorship requirements had been credited for dictating a schedule that included a full-squad leaving dinner on May 28, and a Qantas flight to the southern Hemisphere that had to pass through Australia.

After the first game, Gatland alluded to the idea that a community engagement that necessitated "five hours" in branded four-wheel drives had contributed to the back spasms suffered by Kyle Sinckler and Ross Moriarty.

Such requirements, McBride believes, are here to stay, even if he gives short shrift to the idea that travel conditions have at times been less than ideal.

"Well, let me tell you, in my day there was no such thing as first class no matter how big a man you were, so excuses like that don't wash," he said of the '71 trip to New Zealand that featured 26 games, 12 of them before the first Test.

"Things like that, sponsors and things, it's part of the game now. It's one of the things I'm thankful for that, playing as an amateur, I had that freedom, but it's the time that's the key thing.

"If the whole thing isn't going to be killed, every four years we have to allow the time for more games.

"I look at the Six Nations, and I've said this before, but there are some very talented players, especially in the old Five Nations teams.

"But it's not about individual players, even if there's 40 very good ones.

"It's about building a team, building combinations, building relationships, and that's something that takes time for anyone.

"I think they were better (yesterday) than on Saturday and they'll keep making improvements. But rugby is like a religion over there.

"Absolutely I would say that playing over there is something different than playing anywhere else in the world and that's something that you have to adjust to. That takes time too and it's going to be very, very tough for us."

Even 46 years on from his own triumphant tour of New Zealand, the sight of the famous red jerseys in the Land of the Long White Cloud still brings memories flooding back.

While his exploits on his fourth tour, and indeed his fifth when he captained an undefeated tour of South Africa, have gone down in history, McBride chuckles at how close he came to missing out altogether.

Having lost on his previous three tours, McBride has admitted to being tired of the defeats and originally decided that he would be better off focusing on his banking career.

That was until coach Carwyn James paid a visit to convince the formidable second-row forward that this was a squad ready to beat the best, as long as he was a part of it.

"I think I made the right decision in the end," he laughed.

"And thank goodness I did because I would have regretted missing that tour for the rest of my life.

"You talk about those players (Mike Gibson, JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and Gerald Williams), those are names that even now, after all this time, they still stir something in people.

"Just fantastic players, and it's one of the great boasts of my life that I got to play with them."

One of the most frequently recalled games of that tour outside the Test series is the "Battle of Christchurch" against Canterbury in Lancaster Park, an infamous game so brutally physical that it cost the visitors both their props for the rest of the tour and has gone down in rugby folklore.

The Lions will be back in the South Island city on Saturday to face the Crusaders, although the game will be played in AMI Stadium, not Lancaster Park, after the old ground was damaged in an 2011 earthquake.

And while McBride doesn't expect a contest with anything like the same controversy as back in his day, he admits a result against a side yet to lose a Super Rugby game this season will feel imperative if the Lions are to get things back on track.

"It'll be very difficult now for the Lions," he said.

"Canterbury will have seen what Auckland have done and be saying to themselves 'we're better than they are so we should be winning too.'

"They're going to be giving it 150% now and the Lions will feel now that they have to start winning games."

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