Rugby - Lions eye path to glory Down Under

Australia is billing the British and Irish Lions tour as "12 years in the making" but the 37 tourists know that if they return with a series win, their names will live on in rugby folklore for a lot longer than that.

Reuters
Rugby - Lions eye path to glory Down Under
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The British and Irish Lions arrive at Hong Kong's International Airport (Reuters)

Some fine players have pulled on the famous red jersey and some great matches been played on the tours to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the 16 years since Martin Johnson's side beat the Springboks 2-1 in 1997.

The latest aspirants to rugby greatness - 15 Welshmen, 10 Irishmen, nine Englishmen and three Scotsmen - arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday for the first leg of the tour, which starts with a match against the Barbarians on Saturday.

Some will be injured, others will be destined for the midweek 'dirt-trackers' side but the two dozen or so who do make the Test arena have a chance to join the immortals of 1971, 1974, 1989 and 1997 as winning Lions tourists in the modern era.

"Until you win a series it's difficult to place yourself in that elite group of great Lions players," Irish centre Brian O'Driscoll said before embarking on his fourth attempt to win a tour.

"It's not enough to produce one-off performances or be nearly-men. You've got to win a series to be properly remembered."

Hoping O'Driscoll can achieve his goal will be a horde of 30,000 red-shirted fans helping contribute to what the Australian Rugby Union estimates will be a £60 million-plus boost to the local economy.

Hard playing surfaces, sometimes hostile crowds and provincial players keen to make a name for themselves by "softening up" the tourists await the Lions in their six tour matches around Australia.

Then there are the Tests in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney against a Wallabies side with all the traditional attributes of Australian rugby with ball in hand but resolute in defence and with perhaps fewer weaknesses up front than teams past.

Australia has only been deemed worthy of its own tour since 1989, existing previously as a stopover on the visits to New Zealand with the Wallabies providing practise fodder for the Lions.

The Australia side which lost 2-1 to the Lions on the 1989 tour, however, went on to become world champions two years later, while the Wallabies held the Webb Ellis Trophy when they came from behind to win the 2001 series 2-1.

Both series were thrillingly close and Australia coach Robbie Deans is expecting a brutal battle without parallel in Six Nations, Rugby Championship or even World Cup.

"It's going to be vibrant like no Test match you've ever seen," Deans said last month.

"The ante's gone up. You look at the change in the body shapes now since 2001. They were racing sardines and now the backs are built like the forwards were.

"And then you bring the enthusiasm that will come with the teams and the context with the crowd and noise, it's going to be a great spectacle."

The tour could be a defining moment for Deans with defeat likely to signal the end of his five-year reign as Wallabies coach.

Deans has already lost David Pocock and 2001 series veteran George Smith, both openside flankers, to knee injuries, while one of his best backs, Kurtley Beale, continues his battle with his personal problems.

The controversial omission of mercurial fly-half Quade Cooper - at least until Deans adds six more players to his squad on June 11 - is a matter of choice, however.

His fellow New Zealander Gatland had a fly-half controversy of his own when Jonny Wilkinson was omitted from his initial squad then he lost Dylan Hartley after the hooker was banned for 11 weeks for calling a referee a cheat.

As controversies go, however, they were minor and the call-up of Irish rake Rory Best as Hartley's replacement merely erased one of the few question marks over the squad.

More importantly, all of his players survived the climax of the European season without serious injury, a unusual run of luck for a Lions coach but not one he can guarantee to maintain.

Having served as forwards coach for the Lions side of 2009 which lost 2-1 in South Africa, Gatland knows well the difficulty of blending together the best of the four nations and creating a Test team over just a few weeks.

The Wales coach's choice of combative flanker Sam Warburton as his captain typifies a hulking team described in one Australian newspaper as "slabs of red meat".

Deans, certainly, expects the powerful Lions to risk little before they get over the gainline and plenty of tactical kicking from fly-halves Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell.

Australia will be expecting much of their commanding scrum-half Will Genia and his Queenlsand Reds skipper and lock James Horwill, who adds an extra stripe of steel to the Wallabies pack.

Expect injuries, a Lions "bolter" or two, refereeing controversy particularly over the breakdown, accusations from both sides about over-physical play and perhaps more muscle-on-muscle confrontation than free-flowing rugby.

"All in all it's going to be a great series, there will be defining moments, there will be drama, without a doubt, and we're all going to be better for it," Deans told Reuters last month.

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