LONDON — Just under 24 hours before they left Heathrow for New Zealand, the 2017 British & Irish Lions met as a complete group for just the second time. After coming together back on May 8 for the day termed ‘Messy Monday’, when kit is distributed, the group convened in London after domestic duties had been ticked off.
The last to arrive would have been in mixed spirits, after Saturday’s Aviva Premiership and Guinness PRO12 finals, but emotions had to be parked. The rollercoaster domestic season had to be consigned to a previous life, as all four unions came together under one badge.
England coach Eddie Jones believes the British & Irish Lions will face a difficult task in New Zealand to beat the All Blacks in the Test series.
11 British & Irish Lions bound for New Zealand were in action across the weekend in the Aviva Premiership final, the PRO12 final as well as the Top 14 semis. Find out how they got on.
Premiership champion Jack Nowell, for example, left Exeter at 7 a.m. on Sunday, a mere 13 hours after lifting the trophy at Twickenham.
“As soon as I’m on that taxi ride on my way up I’ll be thinking of what’s ahead of me; getting the chance to play for the Lions, which is any rugby player’s dream,” Nowell said following Saturday’s final. “I want to make the most of it and go for one of those Test shirts.”
Toulon’s Leigh Halfpenny flew in from France, the PRO12 contingent arrived from Limerick and south-west Wales while Wasps’ Elliot Daly and James Haskell had to summon an inch of energy to travel from the east Midlands after a devastating defeat on Saturday.
But the Lions offers those who experienced defeat a chance to put wrongs right.
The Lions head to New Zealand having only come together as a full squad on the eve of their departure. Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
“Having been in the situation of finishing the season on a loss, there could be nothing better than joining the Lions tour where you’ve then got this fantastic challenge to look forward to, and I know each of those players will be feeling the same,” forwards coach Steve Borthwick said on Sunday. “Rather than thinking about what’s just happened they’ve got this great challenge ahead so no concerns whatsoever.”
Owen Farrell, the indispensable Saracens playmaker, experienced defeat to Exeter in the Premiership semifinal. But he finds it easy to compartmentalise disappointment, and re-focus on the job in hand.
“It’s actually quite good coming in straight after a loss as you don’t have too much time to sit there and dwell on it,” Farrell said. “To get straight into training and to be excited to be here is brilliant. We’re just looking forward to getting out there.”
Many tipped Saracens to be in Saturday’s Premiership final, but instead Lions coach Warren Gatland had an invaluable extra week with those players. Farrell has been studying the game plans, learning the systems but one of his main challenges to date has been finding his vocal range in choir practice, as the Lions prepare songs to answer various welcomes they will receive on tour. “I’m enjoying it,” said Farrell.
The day has finally arrived!
— British&Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) May 29, 2017
Two of the songs are “Fields of Athenry” and “Highland Cathedral”, the other two will stay under wraps if they are challenged to respond to a haka at Auckland airport.
Farrell is also waiting on which committee he will be assigned to. “I don’t know if I want the pressure of it, but we’ll see where I fit in.”
But away from their off-field duties, there is a focus on achieving the unexpected. The Lions head to New Zealand as heavy underdogs. “They’re the best team in the world so to go down there and play in their back garden is a massive challenge,” was Farrell’s take, but what they lack for in preparation time as a group, they make up for in planning.
The Lions left on Monday, and will spend Tuesday night in Melbourne before arriving on Wednesday, the stop-off in Australia ensuring the players get a solid night’s sleep. They will have just a couple of training sessions before facing the NZ Barbarians on Saturday in Whangarei — Borthwick says the coaches will wait to see how the players get through the journey before confirming the squad for that game — but even their jet-lag has been managed. Little is being left to chance.
Farrell, centre, knows what it feels like to be part of a victorious Lions tour. David Rogers/Getty Images
The buzzword at the Lions on Sunday as they prepared for their farewell dinner, was “challenge”. No band of tourists have won a series in New Zealand since 1971. The last lot in 2005, labelled the most professional and well-prepared tourists to head to New Zealand, failed miserably. But as they strolled around London, introducing themselves to one another, there was a quiet confidence among the class of 2017.
“Our main focus has to be on ourselves, we need to get our stuff right and if you can do that then the other stuff takes care of itself,” Farrell said. “In these early parts, we need to make sure all our concentration is on what we’re doing
“I don’t think anybody’s going out there just to take part, everybody’s going out there to win and that’s the way it should be.”
They’ve already been written off. But that’s where the magic, mystique and romance of the Lions kicks in, there is always that element of the unknown about this band of tourists.
After four years of waiting, the Lions tour of 2017 is finally ready to begin.
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Little left to chance as Lions head to New Zealand
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