Ever since Stuart Dickinson blew the whistle on the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa which capped one of the best test match rugby series in modern times, rugby fans all round the world have been eagerly anticipating the return of the legendary touring side. And finally the time has come as the side have just jetted off to Hong Kong for the first leg of their epic tour of Australia!
The British and Irish Lions, a team of the best rugby players in the British Isles, landed in Hong Kong Tuesday to prepare for a match against the Barbarians, an all-star side featuring players from around the world. Saturday’s match will be the first time the Lions have ever played in Asia and will be great opportunity to spread firstly, the message of rugby but also secondly, the brand and warmth associated with The Lions touring party. Afterwards, the team travels to Australia for an eagerly anticipated tour that will include three Test matches against the Wallabies.
The Lions, who only tour once every four years, last played in Australia in 2001, losing the series by two matches to one in what will go down as a great missed opportunity especially having taken the first test 29-13 . Lions tours rotate between Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, currently ranked as the top three rugby nations in the world by the IRB and incredibly the 2013 tour marks the Lions’ 125-year anniversary – a traditional that is etched into the rugby calendar.
The match in Hong Kong will certainly be treated as a warm up for Australia; an opportunity for the group of players made up from Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland to join forces for the first time in a competitive encounter. With the first test only 3 weeks away the team must gel right from the get go although team spirit has traditionally never been a problem as illustrated by the famous ‘Living with The Lions’ documentary from the 1997. The first Test is on June 22 in Brisbane, and competition for places in the starting team is fierce.
The 37-man Lions squad was unveiled on April 30. In it featured 15 players from Wales, including captain Sam Warburton, 10 from Ireland, nine from England and three from Scotland. The fact that The Lions last won a series was in 1997, against South Africa, will certainly increase the expectation on the current squad as they go into the tour as favourites against a poor Australian side for the first time in a long time.
As any rugby player will tell you, playing for the British and Irish Lions is the highest honour in the game, so spare a thought for Englishman Dylan Hartley, who has been ruled out of the squad after receiving an 11-week ban for allegedly calling a referee a cheat during a club final match in England over the weekend. What a muppet!! Whilst I have some sort of sympathy for the bloke I do feel this has been coming especially as his past record is hardly squeaky clean and generally acts like a thug around the pitch – although to be fair to him, many have commented he is more than a gentleman off the field.
“Rules are rules and they are there to be adhered to… it must be very disappointing for him to have picked up a ban with such an exciting tour in the offing,” said Lions centre Brian O’Driscoll, whose Irish teammate Rory Best has been chosen as Hartley’s replacement. Rules are rules, never a truer word has been spoken.
As mentioned, The Lions kick things off in Hong Kong where experienced players such as Sergio Parisse of Italy will reinforce the Barbarians after the invitational side took quite a beating against England in London on Sunday, the final score being 40-12. The Barbarians squad is typically multicultural, featuring players from more than 10 countries, including Takudzwa Ngwenya and Samu Manoa of the U.S – it will be intersting to see how they fair.
Furthermore, Rowan Varty is the first player from Hong Kong to represent the Barbarians, a club formed in 1890. Varty is the captain of Hong Kong’s rugby sevens team, so he is a familiar face on the island, which hosts the incredibly popular and successful sevens tournament every year.
“Obviously we get a chance with the sevens to play in the [Hong Kong] stadium once a year, so any opportunity to get on that pitch again is welcomed, and the chance to do it with the bunch that we have here makes it even more of a privilege and an honour,” the winger said. “It’s nice to play in front of mum and dad and friends and people like that,” he added.
Rugby is thriving in Hong Kong and the decision to arrange a Lions fixture underscores efforts to promote the game in Asia. Looking forward, the first test is on 22nd June and if they are anything like what we witnessed in South Africa 4 years ago then we are in for a treat.
I can’t wait!