Maori embracing history, heritage ahead of Lions battle

1:33 PM BST

ROTORUA, New Zealand — It is all bubbling nicely in Rotorua. In the hotbed of Maori culture, this is where Super Rugby boundaries are being broken down, where the 23 men lining up for their ‘Timatanga’ haka on Saturday hope to deliver another body blow to the British & Irish Lions’ momentum ahead of the first Test against the All Blacks.

Away from the experienced, fleet-footed team they have picked, the omens are not good for the Lions. The Maori have won seven out of their last eight games in Rotorua — their last defeat was in 1973 against the All Blacks — and they have firmed up their selection criteria with players requiring Maori whakapapa or genealogy. Players must now recite their Maori history to their teammates, including their river and mountain. They are stronger than ever.

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“We’re about the connection, being one, as we are all Maori. We are using Maori culture to connect the group,” was coach Colin Cooper’s take on how they are fast-tracking an understanding between the players having had just one training session as a whole group prior to naming their team on Thursday.

On the team sheet detailing the line-up for Saturday’s game are their tribes, not Super Rugby franchises. They have left their franchise allegiances at the door.

“It’s very simple to break them down,” Liam Messam said. “The team is picked on blood so automatically we come in as a group. You can’t take that for granted, we still need to work on the small connections in our group.

“We have a silver fern on our chest so we’re representing New Zealand, Aotearoa, so when you come into this environment you put away your Super Rugby sides and you come in as one.

“The quicker you do that, we can use that to our advantage on Saturday because we have had one team training session all together so we need to use those connections and the ties we have, with our culture, come the weekend. We know who and what we represent.”

The Lions know full well the challenge awaiting them. Back in 2005 the Lions made a huge deal of how they were bringing the heaviest front-row in history to challenge the Maori; they were met with the most spine-tingling of hakas, and an 18-13 defeat. The Lions departed with tails between their legs and it was a warning sign of what was to come.

The 2017 group have drawn on that memorable day, with Matt Te Pou — Nehe Milner-Skudder’s uncle — playing a key role in their preparations. “This team’s representing those guys and their feats. It was a magnificent win and very inspiring,” Cooper said. “We’re using that to help us push us forward.”

Martyn Williams looks on as New Zealand Maori celebrate their 2005 win over the Lions. Dean Treml/Getty Images

They have spoken about the importance of playing in Rotorua and the team’s history, detailed superbly in the Timi Tangata Maori Rugby Exhibition here. They met on Monday and experienced a powerful pōwhiri and they have also practised Waiata (Maori song), Te Reo (Maori language), discussed matters important to the Maori world and talked about what whakatauki — tribal sayings — mean to the group.

Each player was given a toanga — in this case whale bone — to mark their occasion and there is continuity in the group as they look to build on last season’s end-of-year tour where they beat the USA Eagles and Harlequins but fell to Munster.

Just two uncapped players were included in the squad for Saturday — Bryn Hall and Rob Thompson — but they will be integrated quickly, and welcomed into a family environment where there is an understanding between players forged on culture.

“The Maori has been a big part of me growing up,” Elliot Dixon told ESPN. “It’s a bunch of boys where we have a lot in common and we seem to gel pretty quickly as we’re here on family and it’s always a fun game. It’s pretty razzling when we go out there and play. There’s a structure and then we’re allowed to do pretty much whatever we want out of that.”

That’s the danger for the Lions, no amount of planning can prepare them for exactly what will be thrown at them on Saturday. The backline they have picked — one packed with ridiculous footwork — suggests the most expansive of approaches.

“I think we have to go for it if we are to have a chance,” Dixon said. “We haven’t had a chance to go into the set piece with scrum and lineouts, it’ll be about the counter attack and unstructured rugby where we can make our mark. If we can shut down their set piece then it’ll help us.

“It won’t be about game plans on Saturday, it’ll be about who wants the moments more. And if we can win more moments, then it’ll go a long way.”

There is nothing quite like the Maori in world rugby, and proof of the task facing the Lions on Saturday can be found in the final two parts of their Timatanga.

“If we aim for the mountains you will hit the plains. If you aim for the sky you will hit the mountain peaks. Climb up, thrive to the pathway of knowledge to achieve excellence, spirituality, mentally, physically.”

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