THE first of three tests between the Lions and the All Blacks is a week away but first, the tourists must face what is essentially their toughest hurdle outside the internationals – Saturday’s game against the Maori All Blacks.
In their first four matches the Lions have lacked consistency to convince most people that they are a real threat, having being described before the tour as the strongest Lions ever in the unique brand’s history dating back to 1888.
True to the task that awaits, head coach Warrant Gatland has again named a very strong side, most likely close to his Test selection, but they will be without the injured Owen Farrell, who otherwise would have been expected to start at flyhalf instead of Johnny Sexton.
One player who has enhanced his chances for a starting Test spot is centre Ben Te’o, the New Zealand-born former rugby league player who used to represent Samoa, the country of his father.
Te’o was chosen by England coach Eddie Jones for England’s tour of Australia last year but his time with England was from the bench.
Despite not being a first-choice for England, Te’o has proven to be the most dangerous of the Lions backs, breaking the line with his strong running and stepping.
To most pundits, despite their reputation prior to leaving for New Zealand, this Lions squad appears lacking in aggressiveness and cohesion and have had to deal with problems with their scrums.
The Maori would surely be reminded of the victorious 2005 side that scored the first win for the Maori in eight attempts against the Lions going back 75 years.
In that match in Hamilton the Maori triumphed 19-13, the only victory by a non-Test team on that tour.
It was a strong Maori team no doubt, with New Zealand Rugby agreeing to allow the Maori to choose all the All Blacks available to them, plus a few who also missed All Blacks selection. Some of those in the team were Leon McDonald, Rico Gear, Carl Hayman, Piri Weepu, Luke McAlister and Carlos Spencer.
The team for Saturday has nine current and former All Blacks but only two – scrumhalf Tawara Kerr-Barlow and wing Rieko Ioane -- who have been released to play this game from the recently announced All Blacks squad.
The squad has been together only a week and obviously lacks practice as a team but the over-riding factor for the Maori side has always been Maoridom.
That the match will be played in Rotorua gives it added significance.
This was where the Lions were given their official welcome and there is no town or district in New Zealand that is more Maori than Rotorua, about 230 kilometres southeast of Auckland.
Rotorua has a permanent population of below 60,000 but is the 10th largest urban area in New Zealand.
Close to 40 per cent of its population is Maori, compared to the national average for the other towns and cities of about 14 per cent.
Damian McKenzie, who has been having two outstanding Super Rugby seasons as fullback for the Chiefs, starts at flyhalf, the position he started his career with.
Much is expected from him, as is also the case with winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, whose lack of game time this year due to injury eased him out of the latest All Blacks selection, and the other winger, Rieko Ioane.
Then there is backrower Liam Messam, no longer an All Black but back from Japan to continue his career with the Chiefs.
If the Maori play anywhere like the All Blacks in their 78-0 demolition of Samoa at Eden Park Friday, we should in for a cracker of a game.
There will be two more mid-week games for the Lions after this game and before the Tests but both the Chiefs and Hurricanes will be without their best choices due to All Blacks commitments.
While the Lions out-thought the Crusaders to win 12-3 in a game that was a big letdown because the Crusaders have been New Zealand’s most successful Super Rugby franchise, the Maori game is akin to a fourth and unofficial Test.