Lions tour manager Andy Irvine says Britain and Ireland’s elite won’t face any easy games on their mouth-watering tour of Australia in three years time.
The former Scotland full back, who starred for the Lions as a player in 1974, 1977 and 1980, admits that there will be no room, and indeed no need, for potential walkovers on the Lions’ next adventure.
When the Lions last travelled Down Under in 2001, the tourists won their opening two games by a combined score of 199-16. Graham Henry’s men crossed for a staggering 18 tries in their 116-10 thrashing of Western Australia at the WACA, before hammering a Queensland President’s XV 83-6 in Townsville four days later.
Fast forward nine years and Irvine says the Lions are planning for an entirely different scenario.
“With the shortened Lions tours we have these days, you don’t have any weak midweek games in Australia now,” said Irvine, who once scored five tries for the Lions in a single match.
“In the past, you may have been playing Western Australia Country XV or the New South Wales Country Cockatoos and you might win by 90 points.
“But that’s not going to happen now because they have got five professional sides. So, the midweek games are going to be a hell of a tough challenge.
“And Australian rugby is getting stronger and stronger all the time. You only have to look at what they did in the autumn series. All right, they lost to England with a poor display, but they absolutely humiliated a pretty strong French side in their own backyard.
“Most rugby commentators would agree they’ve got one of the finest back divisions playing world rugby just now. They are a very powerful side and could be a bit of a dark horse for the World Cup. So, it’s going to be tough.”
The Lions thrashed Western Australia in 2001 but won't do so in 2013
Perhaps unsurprisingly given how demanding a challenge the Lions expect to encounter in 2013, Irvine and his colleagues have already begun preparing for their southern hemisphere showdown.
Much has been made of the need to ensure the Lions have everything in place in good time before they depart these shores and Irvine is determined to ensure that nothing is left to chance as the Lions look for a first series win in four tours.
But while he admits that returning home from Australia with a much-wanted win won’t be easy, Irvine is adamant that the 2009 tour to South Africa has given the Lions plenty of confidence moving forward.
“We are busy checking venues and hotels and we are pretty close to finalising a schedule with the Australians, so there is quite a bit of preparation under way already,” added Irvine.
“There’s no doubt the last tour reinforced the strength of the Lions brand. Gerald Davies as manager and Ian McGeechan as coach really put the brand back on the map again.
“Obviously it was slightly disappointing that we didn’t win the series, but we came extremely close against a very good South African side.
“We proved that the Lions can be very competitive. If it hadn’t been for some horrific injuries, we might well have won the second Test and who knows what would have happened then?
“I don’t think anyone would doubt the Lions played some great rugby and were extremely competitive. The fact that HSBC and FirstCape are keen to renew their partnership with us is testament to that.
“And we will be surprised if we don’t see somewhere in excess of 30,000 supporters out in Australia in three years’ time. It’s tremendous that the brand has managed to survive and probably improve from the last time it was down in the Antipodes.”
Andy Irvine and Sir Ian McGeechan celebrate First Cape's sponsorship
As for the state of the game in the UK and Ireland in comparison to the three southern hemisphere giants of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, Irvine admits there is work to do prior to the 2013 tour.
But while the four Home Unions might not have fared as well as we would have liked during the autumn internationals, Irvine believes there is plenty of time to narrow the gap.
And if the Lions can build on the attacking style of play they nurtured in South Africa last time out, there’s no reason why they can’t be celebrating a series victory in three summers time.
“We have to put our hands up and admire what the southern hemisphere have done this autumn. There’s no getting away from it – their results speak for themselves, as does the brand of rugby they have been playing.
“I would like to see our own style improve a little bit. Down in South Africa in 2009, the Lions played some great rugby. We played expansive rugby and we played with an awful lot of pace and a high degree of skill. Our passing and our line-breaks were absolutely first-class.
“It’s sometimes easier down south because the grounds are harder and the conditions are better and it’s not quite so easy to play that sort of same if the conditions are wet or the ground is wet. But we have to be honest with ourselves: some of the back play from New Zealand and Australia was breathtaking in this autumn series.
“So clearly we have got work to do. But the Lions tour is not going Down Under this coming summer. We have got two-and-a-half years to prepare and I’d like to think in that time-scale we can catch up somewhat.”