Lions tour manager Andy Irvine has been greatly encouraged by the summer Test series’ around the world and believes the gap between north and south is narrowing.
Just how close the northerners are getting to their southern rivals will be revealed next year when Irvine leads his 2013 party to Australia for their 125th anniversary tour.
Three Tests against the Wallabies, and games against each of the Aussies’ five Super Rugby franchises on a 10-match tour that kicks-off in Hong Kong with a clash against the Barbarians, will sort out the men from the boys.
Irvine is well aware that you have to go back to 1997 for the last time the Lions won a Test series, 2-1 against the Springboks a mere two years after the game went ‘open’, and his eyes are firmly fixed on bringing home the Tom Richards Cup.
But the unique challenges thrown up by a Lions tour, when players from four nations who are used to playing against each other are given a week at best to blend to together, mean it is getting tougher to win a series.
“Our plan is to ensure we are completely prepared for the tour and that we put in place an environment that will mean the Lions have every opportunity to be successful next year. It is just fantastic that the Lions concept has stood the test of time, taken on and embraced the professional era and emerged stronger and more popular than ever,” said Irvine.
“The level of support the Lions enjoy from their supporters is unprecedented and the Lions are probably the best supported team in world rugby. It is a unique concept in world sport and one hell of a challenge, one that sees a combined team playing against some of the strongest teams in the world every four years on a tour away from home.
“Yet the players cherish the opportunity and those selected consider it the ultimate accolade in their playing career. The Lions are a very proud team with a unique ethos and a wonderful history.”
Andy Irvine expects a tremendous 10-match tour of Australia next summer
Irvine and team operations director Guy Richardson have spent four weeks in Australia and New Zealand this summer ensuring everything is in place for 2013 and taking in games involving Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
“Apart from Scotland, no country has won down here but, if you look at how competitive the matches have been compared to the past, I would say the gap is narrowing. I'm greatly encouraged,” added Irvine.
“In the past, when Ireland has gone down to New Zealand and Wales has gone to Australia, they've taken a bit of a beating. While neither has won, they have been very close.
“Wales were very close last weekend to beating the Wallabies. If Mike Harris hadn't kicked that penalty it would have been 1-1 in the series, and England have fought doggedly in South Africa.
“The result is obviously important, but what is more important is that we're competitive. In South Africa in 2009 we played some fantastic rugby and the South Africans would be first to concede the difference between winning and losing was marginal.
“I've said many times that the 2009 team deserved to win the series more than the 1997 side because the try count when we won in 1997 was 9-3 to the Springboks and in 2009 it was 7-5 to the Lions.
“Obviously we're desperate to win but, equally, we want to make sure we put up a really good contest. The Wallabies have some fantastic players and are great entertainers. These blokes can play but, having said that, so can we. It’s going to be a mouth-watering series.”