The British and Irish Lions landed in Auckland on Wednesday to begin their 13th rugby tour of New Zealand, facing possibly their toughest schedule as they attempt to achieve only their second test series victory over the All Blacks 47 years after the first.
The Lions' New Zealand-born coach Warren Gatland stepped back onto his home soil after the long flight from London at the head of a touring squad of 41 players — 15 from England, 12 from Wales, 11 from Ireland and three from Scotland.
More than 20,000 fans are expected to accompany the Lions on their 10-match tour which kicks off Saturday against a Provincial Barbarians selection at Whangarei, north of Auckland.
The Lions' flight landed shortly before noon Wednesday and was greeted by a haka performed by indigenous Maori as the aircraft drew up to the terminal building.
Inside the terminal, the touring party received a traditional powhiri, or welcoming ceremony, with a challenge, waiata (songs) and with hongi, the traditional form of Maori greeting in which noses are pressed together. The Lions players, dressed in formal suits and red ties, responded with songs of their own, a Welsh hymn.
Lions manager John Spencer described the welcome as "incredible," saying "we look forward not only to our visit but also to engaging with your communities to show respect to your people and your cultures."
Gatland said that as a New Zealander he had taken pains to ensure the Lions players were well-versed on Maori culture.
"It's been part of my job over the past few weeks just prepping the guys about what to expect culturally when you arrive in New Zealand," he said. "I know from experience in 2011 (as Wales coach at the World Cup) a lot of teams arrived here very much unprepared for what was going to happen.
"We found we did a good job with Wales so we've been working hard making sure we're prepared, that nothing was a surprise for the guys at the welcome today and we responded and sung."
The Lions will play three tests against the world champion New Zealanders — two in Auckland, one in Wellington — and will also play the New Zealand Maori and, for the first time, all five New Zealand Super Rugby sides.
While previous Lions teams have had much larger itineraries, none has been as intense as the one they are about to face, which Gatland has described as "crazy."
In an interview shortly after the schedule was announced, Gatland said "Whoever agreed to that schedule from the Lions point of view, it's crazy."
"I don't see how you could even win that. You're playing five Super Rugby sides, the New Zealand Maori and three tests, and another game, all in a five-week period. It's so tough."
The Lions first toured New Zealand in 1904 and have won a series here only once, in 1971 when a team featuring the stellar talents of Wales flyhalf Barry John and Ireland center Mike Gibson beat the All Blacks 2-1 in a four-test series.
Their most-recent tour, in 2005 when England coach Clive Woodward claimed to have assembled the strongest rugby team in history, ended in a resounding 3-0 series defeat and a loss to the New Zealand Maori. The Lions last won a test against the All Blacks in 1993.