Weakened Lions likely for HK
The British and Irish Lions might not be at full strength, both in terms of quality and quantity, when they touch down in Hong Kong for the historic clash against the Barbarians one year from now.
Lion king Andy Irvine yesterday revealed that the squad for the opening game of the 2013 tour to Australia would be missing players involved in the English and Celtic championship finals the weekend before the June 1 showdown at Hong Kong Stadium.
'We will probably have a good idea of what our first team [against the Barbarians] is because the players who are playing on the Saturday in the championships will not be included in that squad because of player welfare,' Lions manager Irvine told the South China Morning Post.
Irvine, who is in Hong Kong to assess facilities, also said there was a school of thought that believed those players could fly straight to Perth instead of stopping over in Hong Kong. But he said he was dead against the idea of splitting the tour party.
'Our preference would be for the entire party to come here.
'The thing about a Lions touring team is its unity. You are bringing four different cultures and four different countries together. There is a slight change in personalities and playing style so when you bring that together you want to bond as quickly as you can and it is much easier to bond if you are together.
'While there may be logistical reasons why an advance party goes to Perth and prepares there, it will be so with a lot of reluctance. I think it [a split] is very unlikely, but I'm not ruling it out completely.'
The Lions are expected to take a squad of 37 players - drawn from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland - to Australia, where they will play nine matches, including three tests, with the first one in Brisbane on June 22.
Any split in the Lions squad would be a shame, said Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory. 'It would be a real pity if the entire squad does not turn up. Our understanding was that the whole squad would be here,' Gregory said. 'As for the quality of the team they put out, I don't think it will matter, as every player is bound to be good.
'We don't mind who is wearing the red shirt, all we want is to see all of them in Hong Kong.
'Many will not get the chance to play here, but it will be great for the fans if they all turn up.'
Irvine was adamant that even if the squad was split, it would not devalue the strength of the team, and a lot of emphasis was being placed on opening the tour on a winning note.
'We will be taking the Barbarians game very seriously,' he said. 'Of course, the test matches are absolutely vital, but after the test matches, the most important match has to be the first match of the tour.
'We cannot afford to lose this. If we lose, it puts the rest of the tour under tremendous strain.
'We will be here to win.'
Irvine was accompanied by Gerald Davies, chairman of the British and Irish Lions.
They both leave for Australia today, and have made a last-minute change to their travel itinerary, which will now include New Zealand, to visit Wales coach Warren Gatland, who has been widely tipped to be picked as Lions coach.
Gatland is recovering from two broken heels from a fall at his holiday home in New Zealand in April, and his official announcement as coach has been put on hold.
'We are in discussions with Warren right now and these discussions revolve around his medical fitness,' Irvine said. 'He seems to be making a reasonable recovery, but it is a serious injury, the sort where you might not quite know for definite how it is progressing.
'He has still not been appointed [Lions coach], and I hope after New Zealand we will be closer to making a decision. But yes, we have a plan B, a contingency with other options, if he is not OK.'