THERE used to be a time when the British and Irish Lions treated Australia as a kind of rugby hors d'oeuvres ahead of the main course in New Zealand - a course generally comprising a couple of dozen servings of raw meat, with blood oozing in all directions. As recently as 1989, when the Wallaby nation was granted a Lions visit of its own for the first time in 90 years, the fixture list featured three games against "B" teams, one against a handful of rednecks from the outback and another against a provincial side barely worthy of the name. Whisper it quietly, but the Aussies were not sufficiently competitive in enough locations to justify a full tour.
Which brings us to the next trip Down Under in 2013 and a concentrated six-week programme that borders on the savage. The Lions will play three Tests against the Wallabies in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney plus games against all five of Australia's professional Super 15 franchises: the Force, the Reds, the Waratahs, the Brumbies and the Rebels. Soft games? There are but two, and they may not be as soft as all that. The opening contest of the tour will take place in Hong Kong against the Barbarians - who could be brilliant, terrible or anything in between - while the fourth match will feature a team of semi-pro toughs drawn from the further-flung areas of Queensland and New South Wales.
To make life more demanding still, the hosts are already planning their little welcome party. "A lot of the current Wallabies have re-committed themselves to Australian rugby until 2013 and beyond and I have no doubt that the chance to play against the Lions was in the back of their minds when they did so," said the national coach Robbie Deans, who guided his side to third place at the recent World Cup and will field a strong team against Wales at the Millennium Stadium this weekend - a repeat of the hard-fought bronze medal match in Auckland in mid-October.
"The Lions are on a 12-year cycle around the southern hemisphere, so from the players' perspective it's a unique opportunity," said Deans. "Are we preparing now? We have no choice. This will come round very quickly."
Being a scratch side drawn from the four home nations for a once-only shot at one of the Beautiful South's big three - the All Blacks will receive the Lions in 2017 (a tour that could, and certainly should, be extended to include a Test against the Pumas in Argentina), followed by the Springboks in 2021 - the tourists know the urgent business will be upon them even sooner, hence the desire to name a head coach by the end of May at the latest. The candidates? There are two front-runners: Warren Gatland of Wales and Andy Robinson of Scotland. Of those, Robinson is thought to be the front-runner.
"It will be the crucial appointment and we need someone who can devote himself to this 100 per cent for at least a year," said the tour manager Andy Irvine, a majestic Scottish full-back who won 51 caps for his country between 1972 and 1982 and featured in three Lions Test series. "It's a difficult thing to ask of someone, to take a year out from his job, because the rugby calendar is so full nowadays," Irvine said at a gathering in Cardiff yesterday. "But a high proportion of the potential candidates have structured their personal contractual commitments in a way that allows them to be available. Looking at the existing home nations coaches [Gatland, Robinson and Declan Kidney of Ireland] it's my understanding that they'll all be in a position to do the job, if needed. That's great for us."
Irvine also mentioned the man who knows more than anyone else on the planet about the secret mechanism that makes the Lions tick: Sir Ian McGeechan, who played on two tours and has coached on five, four times as tactician-in-chief. "After the 2009 trip to South Africa, which was hugely successful off the field and as near as damn it successful on the field, he indicated that he probably wouldn't tour again," the manager commented. "But I don't think he's ruled himself out entirely. I don't recall him coming out and actually saying it.
"I believe continuity is very important to the Lions and when we look back to '09, there's a strong argument that says 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. There's another view that it's nice to spread the Lions duties around: a Lions Test is the ultimate for a player, being picked as one of the best of the best, and it's pretty much the same for a coach. But our schedules are always tight and it does help if you've been involved previously."
On that basis, Robinson has his nose in front. The former England flanker was a Lions tourist in Australia in 1989 - he did not play a Test, for the very good reason that the captain Finlay Calder had a claim on the No 7 shirt - and coached against the Wallabies 12 years later, when an outstanding British Isles team, perhaps the strongest in recent memory, lost a tourniquet-tight series 2-1. He was also a member of Sir Clive Woodward's rather less successful party in New Zealand in 2005 and has made no secret of the fact that he craves the top job
Whoever is given the role, he will find himself coaching in the most electrifying environment rugby has to offer. Some 30,000 Lions supporters followed the side around South Africa in '09 and the management expect that figure to be equalled, if not bettered, in 19 months' time. Already, more than 12,000 people have registered a firm interest in one of the official all-inclusive package trips.
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