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Rotorua Welcome
5 May 2005, 6:38 am
British and Irish Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll and tour manager Bill Beaumont on Sunday accepted the traditional Maori challenge.
In dramatic surroundings, with the sky darkening and steam rising through the volcanic earth, British and Irish Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll and tour manager Bill Beaumont on Sunday accepted the traditional Maori challenge.

The full Lions party travelled from Auckland to Rotorua for the powhiri, which involved a band of fierce-looking, spear-wielding tattooed Maori warriors from the Te Arawa Iwi (tribe) laying down the weru (challenge).

Beaumont and then O'Driscoll stepped forward to accept the challenge before the party, forced inside by rain, listened to speeches before concluding the formalities with the hongi, a Maori welcome expressed by touching noses.

The Lions head coach Clive Woodward has made clear he wants the tourists to interact with the community during their time in New Zealand and this was a prime opportunity to strengthen ties.

The day may not have begun in the best possible way for the Lions' PR team when a group of schoolchildren were stopped from watching their training session at North Harbour stadium.

And Paul Abbot, chief executive of the Lions' first opponents Bay of Plenty, has hit out at the tourists' decision to arrive in Rotorua just a day before the game.

"You think back to past tours and the way the Lions players got out into the community, built some bridges and fostered rugby," he said.

"But let's face it, this is very much a professional, corporate approach. They're here for 80 minutes of rugby and that's it."

But the Lions worked hard on Sunday to alter that impression. They were greeted at the airport by a thousand flag-waving schoolchildren before being bussed down to the Ohinemutu Marae.

There, the Lions stood as the Iwi performed a dramatic, traditional welcome, backed by song from the local community before Beaumont and then O'Driscoll stepped forward to accept the challenge.

The Lions offered a song in return with Bath prop Matt Stevens, who was once invited to sing with the three Tenors only for a rugby tour to get in the way, leading the squad in a brief rendition of Bread of Heaven.

O'Driscoll addressed the local dignitaries and officials from the New Zealand Rugby Union. He vowed the Lions had come to play hard and win but stressed his desire to build friendship and strengthen ties during their seven weeks in New Zealand.

"We are professional rugby players and it goes without saying we are here to win. We want to play rugby, we want to win matches and most of all we want to win the Test series against New Zealand," said O'Driscoll.

"But this tour is not just about rugby. We intend to get out and meet people, see some of your country and learn of your history, geography and culture. The ties between New Zealand and Britain, New Zealand and Ireland are strong. sport and in particular rugby have played a huge part in building those ties.

"I believe this tour is going to ensure the ties grow stronger and stronger. Thank you very much again for your welcome."

The official Lions series trophy was then unveiled before the hongi ceremony and the Lions squad filtered out into the marae (square) to sign autographs, shake hands and have photos taken with local Maori and travelling rugby supporters.

The day in Rotorua, where the air carries a pungent sulphuric smell from the geothermal activity, ended in smiles and friendship. On Tuesday the Lions will entertain some 10,000 fans with an open training session back at the North Harbour Stadium.

But that will all be put to one side on Saturday, when the Lions return here to face Bay of Plenty in front of a capacity 30,000 crowd at the International Stadium.

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