British & Irish Lions head coach Sir Clive Woodward insists New Zealand rugby is in rude health and spelt out the size of the task facing his tourists over the next six weeks.
The All Blacks’ fearsome reputation took a battering following their 2003 World Cup failure, with the shortcomings of their forwards – for so long the Kiwis’ greatest strength – coming under scrutiny.
Last November’s 45-6 destruction of France – their last Test outing – saw Graham Henry’s side in irrepressible form up-front but doubt lingers over whether their heroics in Paris were just a one off.
However, Woodward – who masterminded England’s Test victory against New Zealand at the Westpac Stadium in 2003 – believes the All Blacks remain a huge obstacle to improving the Lions’ record of just one series triumph in 10 attempts.
"New Zealand rugby has never changed – it’s always been in fantastic health. They are the number one ranked side in the world and have some of the best players around. I’ve been watching the Super 12 and their players look in pretty good shape," he said.
"Look not only at the Lions’ history of touring in New Zealand but at all the records of the individual countries from the northern hemisphere who have been there. It’s pretty dismal. We are fully aware of what we’re up against.
"They are in an incredibly strong position, have a fantastic coaching team and should be very happy with everything. We have huge respect for them. We know their coaches very well and understand the detail they go into in preparation."
The serious business of the three-Test series begins in Christchurch on June 25, but the New Zealand Maori clash will present the Lions with their first major obstacle in three weeks’ time.
Woodward said: "Of all the games in the build-up to the first Test, the Maori will, on paper, provide the toughest match. We could potentially be playing against a very strong side.
"But all the games are going to be hard and my focus will be on building up to that first Test. I don’t believe in calling the Maori game the fourth Test because there are only three Tests. The Maori will be treated just like any of the other build-up matches."