AUCKLAND (Reuters) - The British and Irish Lions opening match of their tour of New Zealand against the Provincial Barbarians on Saturday will be keenly watched for many reasons, but for captain Sam Warburton it will be more about shaking out the cobwebs.
The 28-year-old Welshman came into the tour under a cloud, having sustained a knee injury while playing for Cardiff a little less than two months ago and given a six-week recovery time.
Warburton beat the clock and was able to train with the squad in their pre-tour camps before the side left for New Zealand but he still felt that he would need to run himself back into match fitness over the next couple of weeks.
“It’s really nice to get the ball rolling,” Warburton told reporters in Auckland on Thursday. “I will need a good few games before I start hitting my straps but we all know that every game is a massive audition for the test matches.”
Coincidentally, his knee injury could have prompted a sense of deja vu for the loose forward.
Named to lead the Lions on their previous tour to Australia in 2013, the then 24-year-old had to sit out the opening two fixtures due to a knee injury.
He did not appear until the third game against the Queensland Reds and by that stage was itching to get his hands on his first Lions jersey.
“It really felt I was chasing it four years ago. I was the last guy on the tour to play a fixture so it’s nice to get a jersey in the kit bag,” he said.
”Last time I was constantly panicking about when I was going to get a game and whether I was going to pull through.
“You are always a bit nervous of that... so I‘m really pleased to be involved in the first one.”
Warburton’s side have arrived in New Zealand with huge expectations but only one other Lions team, Carwyn James’s 1971 side, have clinched a series against the All Blacks.
Consequently the opening match against players from New Zealand’s semi-professional provincial competition will be eagerly watched as a sign of what to expect from the touring party.
Can they send a message to the rugby-mad New Zealand public with a performance that shows they mean business?
Do they have the depth required to get through an arduous tour that includes matches against all five Super Rugby teams?
Will they have enough time to gel combinations before the first test in Auckland on June 24?
Despite the limited buildup as players filtered into the training camps due to club commitments, coach Warren Gatland said he had chosen his side last week and they had spent much of it training together.
“It’s a great opportunity for the players selected for the first match is to go out and lay down a marker,” New Zealander Gatland said.
“I think everyone wants to be involved in the test matches so it’s a chance for this 23 to go out there and do that and get the tour off to a good start.”
Gatland, however, was reminded how serious the tour was being taken with the selection of the team to face the Barbarians already described as “a shambles”.
”The opening selections of the tour is a shambles,“ British rugby columnist Mark Reason, who now lives in New Zealand, wrote for Fairfax Media. ”It is paramount that he finds his combinations as quickly as possible.
“Gatland only has two more Saturdays after this one before the first test. He needs to start finding his combinations or the All Blacks will take his team apart.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by John O'Brien