Lions touch down in NZ

by AFP

The British and Irish Lions received a traditional Maori welcome on Wednesday as they arrived in New Zealand for the "ultimate challenge" of a Test series against the world champion All Blacks.

Players from the composite team of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish players wore suits and red ties as they flew in at the start of a nearly six-week tour.

The Lions, who have only won one Test series against the All Blacks in more than a century, will also play seven tour matches against New Zealand's top rugby teams.

Coach Warren Gatland has described the tour as the "ultimate challenge", while former All Blacks and Lions coach Graham Henry has branded the itinerary "suicidal".

A Lions tour once every 12 years is one of the most anticipated sporting events in New Zealand, where rugby is a national obsession and the three Lions Tests were sold out long ago.

The last tour in 2005 ended in a 3-0 "Blackwash" for the hosts as the Clive Woodward-coached side crumbled under a combination of intense pressure and high-profile injuries.Former NRL star Ben Te'o will play a part in the Lions' quest for success. Photo: Getty ImagesThe current team, coached by Kiwi Gatland, aim to make amends, with former England fly-half Stuart Barnes saying victory in the Test series would be "epic".

"It would be the greatest achievement of Northern Hemisphere rugby, it would eclipse England winning the World Cup in Australia (in 2003)," he told Radio Sport on Wednesday.

The Lions will face an All Blacks team who are back-to-back world champions and have held top spot on the international rankings since 2009.

New Zealand underlined their recent dominance with a world-record equalling 18-Test winning streak in 2015-16 and coach Steve Hansen said this week there was still "plenty of room" for improvement.

A glimmer of hope for the Lions lies in Ireland's win over the All Blacks in Chicago last year, which ended the New Zealanders' winning run.Lions fans turned up in numbers this morning, as they always do. Photo: Getty ImagesIreland lock Iain Henderson said the men in green "got under the All Blacks' skin" in their shock 40-29 win and the Lions will aim to do the same in New Zealand.

History also appears weighted against the tourists, who have won only one of 11 previous Test series contested in New Zealand, when the John Dawes-led Lions battled to a 2-1 victory in 1971.

The Lions' overall Test record in New Zealand dating back to 1904 stands at six wins, three draws and 29 losses, a success rate of just 16 percent.

Gatland's team faces a bruising 10-match schedule that will test the depth of his 41-man squad.

They play four of the five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, a provincial Barbarians side and the New Zealand Maori before the first Test on June 24, and the Wellington Hurricanes before the second Test.

The tourists open their tour on Saturday against the New Zealand Barbarians in Whangarei.