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'People might say ‘you’re distracting the players’, but the Lions is unique'

Tour manager John Spencer is insistent that the Lions ‘mustn’t be lost’.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

JUST SIX DAYS into the Lions’ tour of New Zealand and the question marks about the commercialisation of this famous team are once rearing their ugly head.

The lunacy of playing just three days after flying around the world was obvious on Saturday night in Whangarei as the Lions struggled to put away a relatively obscure New Zealand Provincial Barbarians team on a 13-7 scoreline.

Manager John Spencer accepts the challenge Lions manager John Spencer accepts a challenge in Waitangi. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With some players still suffering from jet lag, many of the Lions’ stars were uncharacteristically error-prone, while Warren Gatland’s team struggled for the kind of collective cohesion that will be vital in New Zealand.

And the games will now come thick and fast with little let-up for the Lions, with the Blues awaiting in Eden Park on Wednesday.

It’s already obvious how useful it would have been for the Lions to have additional days on the ground in New Zealand to prepare before opening their tour proper, but they’re keen not to complain about that now.

“We don’t mind the schedule of matches and it is welcomed by the coaches and players,” said tour manager John Spencer in Waitangi on Sunday.

You cannot come to New Zealand and try to win Test matches without proper opposition, before being tested to the core, and that’s what Super Rugby will do for us.

“We have always been disappointed in the preparation time, but that is not a matter which is in our hands. That is arranged for us and we have to take our lot. We hope that when the global calendar is eventually resolved, just once every four years, we will get an extra week at home.”

Hoping for the future to be better is all well and good, but one obvious solution for the Lions this time around would have been to fly the group of 30 or or players who were not involved in club play-off finals out to New Zealand a week earlier to acclimatise.

Those players were always going to be the ones to take on the Barbarians and it would have made sense for the remaining members of the party to then join the Lions in New Zealand after finishing up with their clubs.

Alun Wyn Jones speaks to his teammates after the game The Lions struggled against the Barbarians on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It has been talked about over the years, about bringing different people out at different times, but we think it can be very divisive to split the squad and then try to get it back together again,” said Spencer.

“It isn’t a great difficulty to bond four nations, but you don’t want to add distractions to that. We want to come together. We are a team, primarily, not a set of disorganised players.”

In truth, the fact the Lions had to satisfy sponsors demands for a departure dinner as one large squad was an important part of the decision to travel en masse, as was the requirement to fly with another sponsor, Qantas, through Australia.

Plenty of photo opportunities, fewer chances for players to overcome the jet lag Gatland cited as one reason for their underperformance against the Barbarians.

Gatland also expressed his concerns over the fact that his match day 23 for Saturday had travelled to Whangarei from Auckland in a fleet of sponsored Land Rovers on Friday, stopping along the way for community visits.

“If there’s something we want to go to, we’ll go to it,” said Spencer when asked if these demands on players were being prioritised over performance. “I know in an international side people might say ‘look you’re distracting the players’, but the Lions is unique.

“We want to go back to certain traditions because they work. We’re now back to sharing rooms, we’re back to inviting the other team into the changing room for a beer immediately after the match, we’re back to engaging with the community, whether that’s hospitals, retirement homes, or schools.

“We’re determined to do that. We’re unique but we enjoy it.”

Manager John Spencer Head coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton The Lions moved back to Auckland after Sunday's ceremony three hours north. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There was another long journey for the Lions on Sunday after they made their way further north to Waitangi Treaty Grounds for an official welcome from New Zealand the night after their games in Whangarei, meaning a longer route back to Auckland.

“It can be tricky but we’ve organised our time and we know that being a Lion does not finish on the final whistle,” said Spencer. “This is part of expanding our game to use the moral aspect of our players to show respect and friendship.”

Spencer stressed that the Lions don’t need any “knee-jerk reactions” after the disappointment of their opening performance, and he is hopeful that in the future the touring team will be given greater preparation time by changes in the global calendar.

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. We’ll enjoy ourselves but I think the people in New Zealand, from what I’ve seen over the last three or four days, are happy to have us here.

“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’s 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.”

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Murray Kinsella

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