BRITISH LIONS legend Alan Tait believes the tourists’ only chance of a famous series success against the All Blacks hinges on them winning today’s opening Test.
Many pundits feel Warren Gatland’s side are coming into form as the tour to New Zealand develops, and that they could still cause the All Blacks problems for the duration of the three-Test series.
However, Tait – who celebrated the 20th anniversary of his match-winning score against South Africa earlier this week – feels they must prosper in Auckland this morning to have any chance of denying the back-to-back world champions.
“If the Lions are to beat the All Blacks, winning this first Test is so important,” he told The Yorkshire Post, just as they did in 1971 in Dunedin, the only Lions side yet to prove victorious in New Zealand.
“It is key really to what happens over the next three weeks.
“You’d like to be going into that second and third Test knowing you have the first one under your belt to have a chance.
“That’s why it’s such a massive game in Auckland first up.
“I give simple answers, though, and when I was defence coach for Scotland, I always said the best player any northern hemisphere side had was the weather.
“If you get a wet, stormy night as you often can down there, and a greasy ball with it, and it becomes about penalties and the set-piece, then that would suit the Lions.
“We all know what New Zealand can do on a dry track; they love to attack and it is very difficult to contain them. Their players are so good if they get good ball.”
Tait, 51, was a versatile back during his own career, playing full-back for Leeds Rhinos after swapping codes but establishing himself as a centre for Newcastle Falcons and Scotland on his return to union.
He was on the wing, though, when the Lions beat South Africa in 1997, featuring in the opening two Tests as they went 2-0 up and, memorably, scoring to seal victory in the opener in Cape Town.
“People have kept asking me about it this week but I’m not on Twitter or Facebook,” he said, when asked about the famous clip that has been replayed countless times on social media.
“I did guess it would be that try for the Lions, though, that they were referring to.
“It’s a long time ago now, though, 20 years.
“I ended up on the wing back then mainly because of (Lions coach) Ian McGeechan.
“I went out there as a centre but he had Scott Gibbs and Jerry Guscott in there.
“Geech, though, had coached me in the Scotland A team when I was about 19 or 20 and gave me my big break then on the wing so he probably knew I could always a do a job there in South Africa.
“There were some great wingers out there, including my club-mate at Newcastle Tony Underwood and Bentos (John Bentley) but I think he wanted to go with what he thought was his best defensive team structure.
“That was key against the Springboks; stopping their power and strength.
“The All Blacks are different, though, and you have to have players who can strike with tries against them.
“I don’t think we can rely on five-metre rolling mauls and penalty tries against them and I think it shows in Warren Gatland’s selections.”
Given his own back-three knowledge, Tait is intrigued by some of the the head coach’s bold picks.
He has selected Wales winger Liam Williams at full-back ahead of fellow countryman Leigh Halfpenny – a hero of the 2013 series win in Australia – and has also omitted another star from four years ago in George North, the Wales winger who has endured a difficult season.
England utility back Elliot Daly is the surprise pick on the left wing with Red Rose colleague Anthony Watson on the other side.
Tait, who had a spell coaching at Yorkshire Carnegie last season, said: “Everyone likes to pick their team beforehand and I always did think Liam Williams would push through on this tour and show he could get the nod at full-back.
“He’s such a competitor and, though Leigh Halfpenny is seen as a number once choice, he has been out of form.
“I like Williams and always have; he runs his weight, is strong and elusive which is what I like about him. I wasn’t huge either but could be a deceptive runner and Williams has that.
“I’d have picked him before Halfpenny, too, but it is Watson I’m a little bit worried about. Defensively, I reckon, they will have a go at him and really attack him.
“Daly is a bit like myself; not the biggest but can play centre or wing as I could. He’s worked his way in on the back of the midweek games and is a strong defender but when he gets a chance in attack he’ll go.
“He has picked a lot of finishers in there – Watson can do that – and that’s important as, as I said, you have to score tries to win a Test match against the All Blacks.
“Leaving out George North is a big call but he’s not been great for his club this season and, although he had a big finish for Wales in the Six Nations against England, he probably just hasn’t been playing well enough.”
Tait, who made his Scotland debut in the inaugural 1987 World Cup in New Zealand, is now working in an SRU role – looking for English players with Scottish heritage links.