Matt Stevens interview: British and Irish Lions are too good to be whitewashed by New Zealand

 
Ross McLean
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New Zealand v British & Irish Lions - First Test Match
The British and Irish Lions lost 30-15 to New Zealand in the first Test at Eden Park (Source: Getty)

Former British and Irish Lions prop Matt Stevens believes the modern-day vintage possesses too much talent to endure the same ignominy as the 2005 crop – a series whitewash in New Zealand.

Stevens was a member of the squad hammered 3-0 by the All Blacks 12 years ago in a tour remembered for disharmony, discord and the hiring of Tony Blair’s ex-press secretary Alastair Campbell as the Lions’ media adviser.

The contemporary Lions are a step closer experiencing the same fate as Sir Clive Woodward’s touring party after being outclassed by the world champions at Eden Park on Saturday, while only victory in Wellington this weekend will avoid an overall defeat.

Statistics suggest that the team that wins the opening Test of a three-match tussle has an 88 per cent chance of winning the entire series, although Stevens is confident the Lions will avoid obliteration.

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“I think the Lions will win a Test,” Stevens told City A.M. “If I am honest with myself this is a better Lions team than 2005 [to cope with coming back from 1-0 down].

“A Lions tour in New Zealand is climbing Mount Everest, the toughest test, and back in 2005 we had the floor wiped with us but I really do feel this team can shock the All Blacks.

“For large parts of the first Test the Lions shocked New Zealand. For two-thirds of the game they put the All Blacks under pressure and you don’t often see New Zealand rattled like that.

Saracens Media Session
Matt Stevens is raising awareness for the Lift the Weight campaign (Source: Getty)

“There is a chance the Lions can pull something special out of the bag, although it will be a monumental win if they do.”

A feisty war of words between Lions boss Warren Gatland and New Zealand counterpart Steve Hansen has been a consistent feature of the tour and escalated this week.

Gatland shrugged off his depiction as a clown on the front page of the New Zealand Herald and questioned whether Hansen ringing a radio station to brand him “desperate” was behaviour befitting of an international coach.

Former Wales supremo Hansen was responding to claims that New Zealand had illegally targeted Lions scrum-half Conor Murray in the first Test, a stance which Stevens has sympathy with.

“Hansen was a little dismissive about Gatland’s statement over Conor Murray,” added Stevens, who was a shock inclusion in the 2013 Lions squad, eight months after retiring from England duty.

Read more: Lions boss Gatland shrugs off his depiction as a clown

“From my point of view it was pretty obvious that Murray was targeted and in one incident it was easily a yellow card for [New Zealand flanker] Jerome Kaino.

“Effectively, it was a shoulder charge on a scrum-half’s standing leg after he kicked the ball. That’s cynical and it warranted Hansen being less dismissive.”

Amid all the sniping is the suggestion that future Lions tours could be shortened from 10 matches to eight and from six weeks to five from 2021 amid concerns over player welfare.

The proposals have been described as “madness, bordering on insanity” by Lions board member and tour manager John Spencer and Stevens shares his scepticism.

“I had such amazing experiences on my Lions tours that I suppose my initial thoughts are ‘don’t change anything’,” said Stevens. “But at the same time I understand the pressure on players now. Everyone is getting bigger and stronger and seasons are only getting longer.

“I’d like to think we should cut down the games we’re playing in regular seasons when it’s a Lions year. That’s how special a Lions tour is.

“Ask any rugby player what their dream is or what team they’d want to be in ahead of any other and it’s the Lions.

“Rugby players are playing too much rugby in general so why are we picking on the Lions which happens every four years?”

Stevens, along with former Saracens team-mate David Strettle, has organised an all-stars clash at his former stomping ground Allianz Park on Friday to draw attention to the Rugby Players’ Association’s Lift the Weight mental health awareness campaign.

“We really have to be aware that this is something that will and does affect professional sportsmen because of the nature of their jobs,” said Stevens. “The title Lift the Weight is an apt one.

“We have got some seriously good ex-payers turning out for this – you could say it’s an ageing Barbarians game – and it is humbling they feel the same as we do about the campaign.”

The all-star charity game supporting the #LiftTheWeight mental health awareness campaign is at Allianz Park in NW4 on Friday night. Tickets from sevensandthecity.com

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