IT SEEMS almost sacrilege to say it but Neil Back is a hardened British Lion and a World Cup winner so he is probably better-placed than any to do so.
Ahead of the latest tour to the land of the long white cloud, which kicks off this morning, he actually believes rugby in New Zealand is not what it used to be.
Given it has so often been referred to as more of a religion than sport by those who witness it in the likes of Waikato and Otago, Auckland and Wellington, it is certainly a bold statement.
Yet Back, who featured on three Lions tours during his illustrious career, did always like to get underneath the skin of opponents, more often than not while getting over the top of their ball as one of the best opensides in the modern era.
He explained: “Back then, when we toured with the Lions in 2005, New Zealand had a phenomenal team.
“And there’s no question they were altogether then more than essentially they are now.
“Through the media I’m hearing locals in New Zealand can’t name a single Lions player on this current tour.
“I think that is very arrogant and shows perhaps rugby in New Zealand may not be quite what it was. My memory of it was when you went out for a coffee you’d be greeted by men and women of all ages on the street, who all had great rugby knowledge and were excited by the Lions being there.
“They knew the players alright and probably even knew more about rugby than you did. They were fanatical about it.”
That tour, when Back, at the age of 36, became the oldest ever Lion to feature in a Test, would eventually become synonymous with Sir Clive Woodward’s abject failure with the biggest job of all.
Yes, he had led England to their first ever World Cup win two years earlier, with Back a key component, and beaten the All Blacks on their own soil beforehand.
But when it came to taking the Lions, the historic amalgamation of the four home nations, and attempting to win a series in New Zealand it ended in a sobering 3-0 series whitewash. And he had Alistair Campbell along with him as his media officer.
Under Warren Gatland, who takes his side into the first Test three weeks from now after this morning’s opener against a Provincial Barbarians side in Whangarei, there is a far greater chance of success.
That said, the odds are still stacked against the Lions whose only previous series win in New Zealand was in 1971.
But what went so wrong 12 years ago aside from the obvious, captain Brian O’Driscoll injured by an illegal tackle in the opening moments of the first Test, never to play again on that tour?
Back recalled: “The meticulous planning that Clive and his management team went through ahead of the tour looked absolutely phenomenal and fantastic on paper.
“But certain things didn’t work. We know that now. I think Lions squads have learned that since. There was the two coaching teams rather than one for the midweek and Test sides, things that worked well for England – who’d been together a long time – like single rooms, not keeping the squad together at different venues…
“Traditionally the Lions squad has been about the Wednesday team getting up Thursday morning and helping the Test side get ready but in ‘05 that wasn’t always the case.”
Woodward – who persuaded Back to come out of international retirement to play in New Zealand – gave his most candid interview yet about that tour in a newspaper piece last week.
In it, he referenced how some of the England players who had helped him win the World Cup in Sydney urged him to be “more himself” around the Lions.
Was Back one of those?
“Erm. (Long pause) We did talk through the tour,” he says, before continuing on a tangent.
“Clive is always honest and forthright and one of his strengths was his meticulous planning and his honesty which was reflected in that interview.
“Things went wrong. Clive said himself he wasn’t an international coach coaching an international team at that time and two management teams, the choice of our media man… it didn’t work as well it could have.
“It soon became apparent there was some wrong choices made. It still could have been overcome but what you have to do is get the squad together as one and all feel like they’re competing for a Test jersey.
“It only takes small things to knock you off that course. It only takes a mere per cent or two not to be fully together on board and doing all they can to be the best they can be to help the squad and things can go wrong.
“Margins between winning and losing are not massive.”
Woodward also revealed he placed too much trust in some of his England heroes from 2003 with his selection for the first Test.
Thirteen played including Back – who did not feature in the next two – and Woodward said he felt he had failed to see some of them had dropped off in form in the intervening two years while he was away from the scene.
Back – who later became Leeds Carnegie head coach between 2008 and 2011 – said: “I hope he isn’t referring to me as at that time I was phenomenally fit.
“I had one focus as I’d retired internationally and I was playing well. Other players took my place in subsequent weeks but they didn’t do any better in scorelines.
“You can speculate about that. Essentially, you need to be all on the same page and we weren’t quite there. And when you’re not winning your set-piece, which is traditionally very strong in northern hemisphere sides, you are on the back foot already.
“For whatever reason we weren’t quite there and that affected performance. Clive said he got his selections wrong. I don’t concur with that as the first Test was not what we wanted but the scorelines got worse after.”
That is true; after the 21-3 defeat in Auckland, they lost 48-18 against the Dan Cater-inspired All Blacks in Wellington before returning to Auckland and falling again 38-19. But what about now?
“I’m genuinely excited for the first time in a long time to follow the tour,” said Back, 30 years on from helping them win in South Africa and also featuring against Australia in 2001.
“With New Zealand and their record in terms of World Rugby being ranked No 1 for 80 per cent of time since rankings been on this planet and being double and reigning world champions...
“But I do genuinely think that Warren Gatland has put together a phenomenal squad that, on the back of Ireland’s defeat of New Zealand last year in Chicago, if we keep fit and well and grounded, we can definitely compete with the world’s best team.
“It’s the biggest honour to play for the Lions. The ultimate. Friendships for life, where later a look across a room to a team-mate can say a million words. If they all give everything they can win this series.
“There’s no doubt New Zealand will remember who everyone is then.”