May 29, 2017 / 10:13 AM / 3 months ago

Great expectations as Lions prepare for best and worst of times

British & Irish Lions Training & Press Conference - Carton House, Co. Kildare, Ireland - 22/5/17 British & Irish Lions players during training Reuters / Clodagh Kilcoyne Livepic

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Past and present All Blacks have swamped television advertisements for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand with a succinct message.

It is simply, "the greatest series" and for once the claim is hardly marketing hyperbole.

Never has a Lions side arrived in New Zealand with greater expectation.

England, who have provided 15 of the 41 players, are currently ranked second in the world behind the All Blacks while coach Warren Gatland added 11 from Ireland, who are fourth and hammered the world champions for the first time last year in Chicago.

Gatland also selected 12 Welsh players, including tour captain Sam Warburton, whom he knows well through his day job as coach of the Wales side.

That familiarity will no doubt aid the former All Blacks hooker in gelling 41 players from four different countries with little preparation time.

Because of club commitments at the end of the long European season, only 14 players attended a training camp in Cardiff two weeks ago while a few more arrived in Dublin last week.

Gatland therefore might not get a chance to see some of the players he is considering for the first test on June 24 until the third game of the tour against the Canterbury Crusaders.

The match against the seven-times champions will be the last Super Rugby side where the Lions face any All Blacks, who go into camp after the June 10 clash in Christchurch.

The tour, which opens on June 3 in Whangarei against a team drawn from New Zealand's semi-professional provincial competition however, does not get easier.

A clash against the Maori All Blacks has been scheduled for Rotorua on June 17, where Gatland, who has to juggle building momentum while trialling combinations, is likely to give his first test side an opportunity to play together before they face Steve Hansen's team.

'NO HIDING PLACE'

British & Irish Lions Training & Press Conference - Carton House, Co. Kildare, Ireland - 22/5/17 British & Irish Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland during the press conference Reuters / Clodagh Kilcoyne Livepic

While only the Auckland Blues and Crusaders of the five Super Rugby sides will be at full strength, the dominance of New Zealand teams in the competition over the last two years has shown how much depth the rugby-mad country has.

"It's a tough place to go," former Scotland captain Gavin Hastings, who led the Lions on their 1993 tour of New Zealand, told the BBC. "You've got to face up to it. There's no hiding place. There never has been and never will be."

One comfort for the Lions, however, will be the support of an estimated 20,000 travelling fans, who are just as rabid and knowledgeable as their local counterparts and arrive with full wallets.

The last tour in 2005 generated a total economic benefit of about NZ$250 million (137.46 million pounds), with New Zealand Rugby pocketing almost NZ$25 million and similar estimates are projected this year.

On the field, however, the Lions are well aware they have won just one previous series in New Zealand, when the 1971 side coached by Carwyn James clinched a 2-1 victory with the fourth test a 14-14 draw at Eden Park.

It is not coincidental that two of the three tests on the tour will be held at the revenue-maximising Auckland venue.

The All Blacks have not lost there since 1994, a run of 36 victories and one draw, while they are also unbeaten in New Zealand since 2009 -- a sequence of 45 successive wins.

The world champions, however, have had a run of injuries to several players with captain Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino only expected to return from surgery after the Lions have arrived.

First-choice hooker Dane Coles also remains under a lingering concussion cloud, but Hansen has said he expects most of his players to be available.

Hansen also had one other expectation.

The Lions would be under more pressure than his side.

"It is the strongest Lions squad I have seen in a long time with a lot of depth (and) ... there will be a massive expectation on them," he told London's The Telegraph newspaper.

"The Lions will have to learn to deal with it ... (and) would be foolish to think that there's not an expectation there for them to do well."

Editing by Rex Gowar

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