AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The 2017 British & Irish Lions may be one of the more culturally-sensitive bunch of tourists to have journeyed south, but their charm offensive will not extend to the pitch.
“I don’t care how we win,” was Sam Warburton’s message as he faced the media in their first press conference on New Zealand soil. They have put a huge amount of effort into being a welcoming bunch but Warburton would take 3-0 in every match from Saturday’s opener against the NZ Barbarians through to the third Test on July 8.
The Lions arrived in New Zealand via an elongated route which took in Dubai, Melbourne and eventually Auckland and were met fresh off the plane by a Maori welcome which included a powhiri, the laying of the wero, the hongi — Warburton was worried about this aspect due to the size of his nose — and performances of the haka and a traditional waiata.
The tourists responded with one of the four songs they have learned, Calon Lan, and were then met by waiting supporters.
“I’ve spent 11 weeks here [across 2011 World Cup and 2016 tour], I’m quite used to that welcome and really enjoy it,” Warburton said. “Maybe I enjoy it more as I’m older whereas when I was younger I was a rabbit in the headlights.
“In New Zealand everyone’s so friendly which is why it’s my favourite place to play rugby in the world, outside of my home country. That welcome was great for us, as soon as we hit the ground.”
So far, so good but on Saturday the Lions get their first taste of New Zealand hospitality on the field. The NZ Barbarians should not pose much of a threat to the Lions, but with the relentless schedule then seeing them play the Blues just four days later, Warburton knows the team need to get off to a winning start.
“Once we get into that first game it’s all guns blazing and we are looking forward to it,” Warburton said. “It’s nice to finally be here, there’s been a lot of talking since the start of the season. The good thing is when the first game gets underway they start coming thick and fast.
“Obviously the number-one priority is to win and I don’t care how we win. If we won every game 3-0 I’d bite your arm off. It’s all about winning at this level. It’s nice from a spectator’s point of view for lots of tries, but I’d take a win all day long.”
Warburton is set to captain the Lions on Saturday against the Barbarians and has focused more on his own match, than his expected opponent. But he will be keeping a close eye on the man set to start at No.10, Warren Gatland’s son Bryn.
“I’ve known Bryn from when he was coming in to kick with the [Wales] squad six, seven years ago,” Warburton said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Bryn, he showed a lot of courage for that drop-goal last year. He’s in a good bloodline and we are looking forward to coming up against him.”
More pre-match pleasantries but you sense Warburton is trying to instil a firm, resilient underbelly to this squad.
The schedule is against them, but Warburton said jet-lag is no excuse if they under-perform on Saturday. Excuses will not be tolerated, with constant development expected from the outset as they keep their focus on the first Test against the waiting All Blacks.
“It’s all about the Test series,” Warburton said. “They are important to win, you get a good feeling, but we’ve got to realise that the next three, four weeks are big learning weeks for us. It’s going to take a little while to get our processes right.
“Some of the guys next week will have their first hit-out against one of the best club sides in the world. It will take time to develop. There’ll be a lot of learning in the next three or four weeks. We just need to get better and better after each fixture.”