ROTORUA, New Zealand — As Jono Gibbes sat in the changing rooms before leading out the New Zealand Maori against the 2005 British & Irish Lions, he was riddled with pre-match anxiety. His mind was racing. He had trained once that week, then there was the pressure of cementing the Maori team’s place in the ever-changing rugby landscape just 10 or so years into professionalism.
His mind wondered back to 1993 at Athletic Park, when he sat watching Allen Prince sprint down the touchline. “He was hot-dogging one of the Lions,” Gibbes remembers. They went on to lose to the Lions 24-20, their seventh defeat in seven against the famous touring side.
Owen Farrell has been pictured wearing heavy strapping as he took to the training field for the first time since suffering the injury which has rocked the British & Irish Lions’ preparations for the first Test against New Zealand.
It is all bubbling nicely in Rotorua as the Maori All Blacks leave their Super Rugby allegiances at the door in the hope of delivering another body blow to the British & Irish Lions’ momentum.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including three Tests against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
The 2005 team wanted to put that right. The Lions came to Waikato with plenty of huff, puff and bluster, but were still nursing the premature departure of Lawrence Dallaglio through the injury he picked up against Bay of Plenty.
But still, the self-billed most modern Lions team that ever was, boasted the heaviest front row in Lions history, hunched at 53 stone. They were going to win the battle up front, and strangle the Maori. Instead, they were met with Carl Hayman, and a Maori team who were determined to finally get one over the Lions.
“There was a good feeling inside the team,” Gibbes told ESPN. “Current Al Blacks players were released and allowed to play in that game. The spirit was always there, the enjoyment, camaraderie and culture existed so that week was unique. That’s what that team’s like all the time.”
There was something in the air that evening. One of those rare occasions where there is a feeling of being involved with a truly special occasion, and their haka — the timatanga — set the agenda for the rest of the night. Rua Tipoki led it, with Rico Gear and Carlos Spencer flanking him. Gibbes was just in behind, looming over them.
“That haka was from near where it was played in Waikato, the royalty of Maori is based near there,” Gibbes said. “It’s a strong, traditional area of New Zealand. It was a good opportunity to welcome them on to the field and an appropriate welcome on the area where we stood. It certainly increased the intensity.”
The Maori had a backline to dream of, but their forwards were to be the heroes, winning the battle at the breakdown. Gibbes knew his duty as captain, but the doubts were there over his fitness.
Gibbes, with his head taped, performs the timatanga haka alongside his Maori teammates for the match against the Lions. Dean Treml/Getty Images
“Personally I hadn’t trained all week, I had a foot injury. It was a fraudulent representation from me, if I’m being brutally honest.
“What was my job? Not much to be honest. It was a great occasion for my family and I was proud to represent my family but my job was to play well and make sure I did the best I could for the others. And that’s what it was like. At the time it was exciting and the emotion afterwards was euphoric. The quality that was in that team, each guy did their job brilliantly.”
The Maori went on to win 19-13, with Leon MacDonald scoring their sole try. History had been made. The players knew they had delivered a body blow to the Lions, who were in the embryonic stages of their preparations for the Test series.
They returned to the changing room afterwards, to the scene of Gibbes’ of pre-match self-doubt. Then they went to the formal dinner, but barely mixed with the Lions — the tourists stayed for a drink, and then departed back to Auckland. The Maori went on into the night in Hamilton.
“We went back to our hotel, and had a couple of beers in a room to acknowledge what we’d done, but that team would never play again together,” Gibbes remembers. “They lived together for the week, and that was it. You try and live in that moment. Some lads went into town, but I was so knackered. I had a full house of extended family at my place. They helped themselves to the fridge, and I went to bed.”
Gibbes, right, celebrates the Maori’s win over the Lions in 2005. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images
Gibbes would feature in two further matches against the Lions. He was named on the bench for the first Test — “I got to sit on the bench and freeze my nuts off but I had a good view” — and then came off the bench against the Lions in Wellington for one of his eight caps having enjoyed Dan Carter’s “masterclass”.
The win that day paved the way for the class of 2017. The team who tackle the Lions in Rotorua on Saturday have drawn on inspiration from 2005 and are using that as motivation. Gibbes will not be there on Saturday as he prepares to become Ulster’s next head coach, moving to Belfast before taking some well-earned rest in Lake Garda after guiding Clermont to the Top 14 title.
But he will find a way to watch it, knowing that that team in 2005 are continuing to influence and inspire the current generation.
“They’re bloody important,” Gibbes says of the Maori. “They’re not self-serving, there’s something other than the self with the Maori. It’s healthy to keep that going.”
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