2009 is finally here, and with it comes the first Lions tour to South Africa since 1997.
Ian McGeechan’s men leave Britain and Ireland in less than six months time as they prepare to face the Springboks in what is likely to be one of the biggest Lions challenges to date.
The tourists will play a total of 10 fixtures on their five-week adventure, culminating in a three-Test series against the world champions in late June and early July.
The Springboks will be desperate to bounce back from their defeat to the Lions 11 years ago, while the Lions themselves are determined to recover in the best possible fashion from their 2005 loss to the All Blacks.
"It’s a major challenge," says Lions head coach Ian McGeechan.
"When we go there, we will have to get used to how big the rugby is in South Africa on a Lions tour."
The Boks won all three of their tour matches on their recent trip to the UK, culminating in a 42-6 thrashing of England at Twickenham in late November.
"If anybody was thinking it was going to be easy, I think just watching South Africa you understand how strong they are" explained McGeechan, who won there as a player in 1974 and as a coach 23 years later.
"They’ve shown what good shape they’re in and that they can play more than one way. They’ve got a good forward pack but you can go through it all – back row, outside backs – and they’ve shown we face a major challenge.
"The biggest problem for us is getting together having never played together. That’s still the biggest challenge, that process.
"That’s why I’m so pleased that we’ve got coaches like Graham Rowntree on board who understand that challenge and understand that we’ve got a responsibility as a coaching team to be very clear about what we want and how we want to get it.
"When you’ve got coaches who understand that, you’ve got a fighting chance of getting it over to the players."
Ian McGeechan has assesmbled an impressive coaching team for 2009
The four home unions may have only managed one November victory between them over the southern hemisphere giants but McGeechan is confident that, together, they possess enough talent to get the Lions back to winning ways next summer.
The London Wasps director of rugby has plenty of experience of creating a winning team spirit and attitude within his camps, most notably with the Lions in ’97, and he believes that the same outcome is possible in 2009.
"Obviously, you want to see the northern hemisphere teams winning as often as possible but, in the end, it’s not one team and how they compare against others. It’s about four teams and producing one group of players that we think can challenge South Africa.
"Individual performances were encouraging in the autumn. New players came to the fore, players that we may not have been talking about as strong Lions candidates. There were some good performances that came out and that was quite encouraging and exciting.
"No other international team has a tour like the Lions. Not with mid-week games, Saturday games and Test matches. The challenge for the modern player is that they are not used to a 10-match tour. This is the longest tour that they’ll ever partake in and psychologically, that is a challenge for them.
"The challenge for us is to select what we think is the best group of blokes and then draw them together."
The Lions begin their tour against a Highveld XV on May 30, before facing the Springboks on June 20, 27 and July 4 in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg respectively.