WHANGAREI, New Zealand — Alun Wyn Jones is one of only two players in the squad to be on their third British & Irish Lions tour and knows the perils of underestimating opponents.
On Saturday he is expecting the NZ Provincial Barbarians players to “grow two inches, an extra arm and a leg” as they look to stun the Lions in the first match of the 2017 tour.
Flying under the radar is suiting the British & Irish Lions, but Warren Gatland hopes his class of 2017 will have their names written in New Zealand history by the end of the tour.
British & Irish Lions utility back Jared Payne has been ruled out of the opening match of the tour against the New Zealand Barbarians this weekend with a calf strain.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including a three-Test series against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
The Barbarians are an “unknown quantity” in Jones’ words but he knows the unrivalled depth of talent New Zealand possesses, which is why he feels this has to be the strongest Lions squad he has been a part of if they are to finish with a series win over the All Blacks.
Jones looked comfortable in the Lions kit when he faced the press; he knows full well the enormity of the task facing them, and also the duty he has to future generations to do the shirt justice. He has seen the fickle nature of how the Lions are regarded and just where they fit into modern sport.
Four years ago, Jones led the Lions to their third Test win over the Wallabies, a game which clinched a 2-1 series triumph. Prior to that tour there were calls for the tourists to be banished into history — they were regarded by some as an anachronism — but that series win brought the romance back and the tourists were once again national treasures.
As they prepare for the first game of the 2017 tour, there is a quiet optimism around this crop but slip up against the Barbarians, and suddenly doom and gloom will rear their ugly heads. Which is why everything is in fast-forward for this group; game plans, lineouts, set moves and tactical shifts have to be crammed into the warm-up matches so they are battle-hardened for the Tests.
“Positive play, the gelling of individuals is a massive one and there will be things to work on when we come out of it,” Jones said when asked what he hopes the Lions will get out of Saturday’s match. “Hopefully there’ll be things to work on when we come out of it alongside the result.”
Saturday will offer a “true test” of how this group have bonded and while they can run drills efficiently and precisely in training, there is no substitute for the intensity or physicality of a game.
Jones captained the Lions to a third-Test defeat of Australia four years ago that clinched the series victory. Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images
The Lions must also learn to adapt to different challenges as they navigate a schedule which you can either “laugh about” or “complain about”, as Jones put it, but he knows full well the quality of opposition they can expect to face over the coming weeks having watched from the stands last June when the Chiefs thrashed Wales 40-7.
“We were outsmarted and the quality of play, particularly from the Beaver [Chiefs fly-half Stephen Donald], was good to watch for the neutral but not for ourselves,” Jones said. “That level of intensity will exist throughout the tour and it’s down to ourselves to get to that level and maintain it. We have to red line the whole way through.”
To achieve that ‘red line’, the Lions have dedicated time to understanding the country they are in, and getting a handle on New Zealand’s culture. One of their big tasks has been to learn four songs from each of the nations so they can respond to any welcomes they receive as they travel the length and breadth of the country.
He has found ‘Jerusalem’ taxing to learn due to the number of words — “it’s been harder than the lineout calls” — but on Saturday the focus will be on the Lions’ performance.
Competition has seldom been higher for places in the Test squad, and Jones is prepared for anything as he hopes to steer the Lions to an opening win on this 2017 tour.
“You have your hand on the bat and we’re the first group to get out of the blocks and we want to get some momentum.”
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