Friday 15 December 2017

British and Irish Lions vow to stick to busy schedule despite poor start to tour

Sam Warburton leads his team to the Maori welcome at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Sam Warburton leads his team to the Maori welcome at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

The British and Irish Lions have insisted they would not alter their busy off-field schedule despite a laboured opening victory over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.

The Lions received a spectacular official welcome from more than 400 Maori warriors at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds on Sunday, the morning after their unconvincing 13-7 win over the Barbarians in Whangarei.

England centre Ben Te'o admitted the Lions' early New Zealand exertions had been tough, revealing players had only been sleeping "one or two hours" a night as jet lag bit following their arrival on Wednesday.

Head coach Warren Gatland had suggested long car journeys to community visits on Friday could have contributed to back spasms for Ross Moriarty and Kyle Sinckler - but tour manager John Spencer and captain Sam Warburton claimed the Lions must stick to their guns to engage with their hosts.

"On a Lions tour, we have our traditions that other tours don't have and part of that is engaging with the community," said Spencer.

"That is really important to us and we did it a couple of days ago with schools and hospitals and some retirement villages.

"This is different because this is acknowledging the culture of a very important nation and the rugby will come back into full view but today is a day of respect.

"Being a Lion does not finish on the final whistle. This is part of expanding our game to use the moral aspect of our players to show respect and friendship."

Spencer reiterated the Lions' sole frustration on their touring plan remains the lack of preparation time in advance of flying out to New Zealand - not their punishing 10-match schedule or playing their first match just three days after touching down.

Spencer claimed the continued wrangling to iron out the final kinks in the global calendar to run post-2019 remain "in their infancy", despite governing body World Rugby having hailed major breakthroughs in securing a solid framework.

And Spencer insisted the Lions' place must be assured in that calendar, dubbing the touring outfit a unique "creed".

"Well negotiations for the new global calendar are really only in their infancy and we're just going to have to be a part of those negotiations," said Spencer.

"Look at the Lions tour. Look how huge it is. I don't like the word brand but look what a creed it is, what a concept it is.

"I think there is a long way to go on the global calendar, yes. They've decided that they want to reduce matches and they've decided that they want a different length to the season, that sort of thing, but they've decided that they want other things.

"Now we want to be in those negotiations to put forward our point but there's no anger here, it's purely one of negotiation and trying to get other people to understand how great the Lions tour is.

"It mustn't be lost. There is no way the Lions tour can be lost because this is one of the things that inspires rugby around the world and inspires young people in particular."

Captain Warburton hailed the Waitangi visit and welcome as a vital component of the Lions tour, despite the obvious necessity to drill quickly down into a greater rugby focus.

Asked if he would stick by the Lions' off-field plans, Warburton replied: 'I think that's really important. You want to come over here and paint a good picture of the British and Irish Lions and that is as important as what you do on the field.

"From a players' perspective, you want to focus on performance but you realise when you go on Lions tours, it is greater than that. It is the legacy you leave behind."

England centre Te'o was one of the few to impress in the lacklustre 13-7 win over the New Zealand Barbarians, with the Worcester star later admitting the Lions have struggled to acclimatise quickly.

"If I'm honest, the last three days have been really tough," said Te'o, with the Lions quickly back in action against Auckland on Wednesday.

"Waking up at one in the morning, some guys getting one or two hours sleep, boys really, really tired before training, before games.

"But we've got to push through and over the next few days, it's going to get a lot easier. The guys playing on Wednesday will probably be feeling a lot better than the guys playing today."

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