Lions tour manager Andy Irvine is convinced the 2013 adventure in Australia will be a huge success both on and off the field.
Britain and Ireland’s elite head Down Under in 18 months’ time, with Irvine having now announced a nine-match schedule in Australia and an opening tour clash with the Barbarians in Hong Kong.
The Lions will take on all five Australian Super 15 franchises, starting with the Western Force in Perth on June 5 and finishing with the Melbourne Rebels in between the first and second Tests with the Wallabies on June 29.
And with the last three Lions tours featuring ever-increasing fanatical support, plenty of inspirational performances and no shortage of quality, Irvine is convinced the 2013 version will be even more memorable for everyone involved.
“When the game went professional in 1995, there was a lot of concern, and indeed doubt, as to whether Lions tours would continue. What in fact happened after that was that Lions tours became bigger than ever and more popular than ever,” said former Lions full back Irvine at the fixtures announcement in Cardiff on Monday.
“After the Rugby World Cup, a Lions tour is the biggest event on the rugby calendar. From a players’ point of view, it’s the ultimate honour.
“It’s the best of the best that play for the Lions and every player in the UK and Ireland who is eligible for the Lions is desperate to be selected. And it’s not just the players: it’s the coaches, the doctors, the physios, the whole entourage.
“From my point of view, it’s a great honour and a great privilege to be the Lions manager. It’s something very special and is probably even more special than when I wore the famous red jersey myself.
“Lions tours have really caught the imagination of the public. When I toured South Africa in 1974, the number of supporters could be counted in tens. By 1980, there were a few hundred. But by 2001, Lions tours had really taken off and we saw the famous Red Army for the first time. Now, you can count the fans in their thousands.
“In 2009, it was estimated that we had nearly 30,000 followers in South Africa and in 2013 we hope to see that trend continue. There’s no doubt that economic times are difficult right now but we’re still hopeful that we’ll see huge support following us from the UK and Ireland.”
Andy Irvine is looking forward to yet another amazing Lions adventure
And while Irvine’s expectations in terms of the Lions’ famous following are as high as ever, the ex-Scotland international is also predicting another compelling Test series following the 2009 nail-biter in South Africa.
The Lions were beaten 2-1 by the Springboks yet they scored more tries and had a better points difference over the three internationals than their illustrious opponents.
The Wallabies have since knocked the Boks out of the recent World Cup and can boast some of the game’s most exciting players, while the Lions themselves are in great spirits having restored their wonderful reputation after a disappointing showing in New Zealand six years ago.
“I’m not only expecting a very competitive tour, I’m also confident that we’ll see a great spectacle,” added Irvine.
“Of all the teams playing international rugby right now, Australia are by far and away the most exciting. In the modern game, we often see defences on top and the midfield is often congested but if there’s any team that can make great line breaks, it’s the Australians.
“What I love about their game is that they take risks. I’m not sure that everything they do you will find in the coaching manual but it’s certainly exciting to watch.
“In 2009 when we travelled to South Africa, we took on the World Champions. In 2013 Australia will not be the World Champions but at the moment they are the champions of the Tri Nations and the Queensland Reds are the top team in the Super 15.
“They have got some fantastic young players and I’m slightly concerned that by 2013 they might well be at their peak. But having said that, we’ve also got some fantastic young talent coming through and I was hugely encouraged by the number of players from the UK and Ireland that developed during the World Cup in New Zealand.
“We’re looking forward to a fantastic tour that will be tough, exciting and a great occasion.”