Hong Kong Sevens

Lions boss Irvine forecasts a rugby feast, weather permitting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am

As a player Andy Irvine loved to run with ball in hand. He was an attacking full-back from the very top drawer.

So it is perhaps natural the Scotsman, manager of the British and Irish Lions on the 2013 tour of Australia, is worried it will rain on the parade on the day history is made in Hong Kong.

On June 1 next year, the Lions will visit this city for the first time and take on the Barbarians in what is expected to be a sell-out crowd at the 40,000-seater Hong Kong Stadium.

It will be a meeting of two giants, given further significance in that it will be the first match on tour.

So no wonder Irvine is worried over something as mundane as the weather. 'We're hoping it'll be a dry evening because it is so much more difficult to play good, attractive rugby if the conditions are wet,' he said.

Irvine was in town on Friday, when the one-year countdown began, and there was no rain.

'If there is no wind, and there is a week of sun before the match, the build-up of heat could make life difficult for the players. We will have to wait and see and take our chances with the weather which obviously will be a factor,' Irvine said.

'But the important thing is that it doesn't rain. We have two iconic sides both famed for throwing the ball around and playing attacking rugby. If everything goes to plan, and with favourable weather conditions, you will see a great spectacle of rugby.

'It is not going to be 9-6 or 11-9. It will be a high-scoring game with lots of running. That is what the crowd will want to see.'

To mark the One Year To Go campaign, Irvine and Lions chairman Gerald Davies, along with former Wallabies captain John Eales - who led Australia to a series win over the Lions in the 2001 series - and Barbarians manager Derek Quinnell were in town for a series of functions.

For Irvine it was business and pleasure. 'We are here on a recce, to look at hotels and training grounds.

'We will be back again in December or January - along with the head coach and his staff and also our head of medical, a group of about 10 of us - for a final look.

'It will be a tight schedule and it is very important that we know exactly what we are doing from the moment we arrive in Hong Kong.'

The arrival date is May 28, a Tuesday. And all this is for just one game. So one can only imagine the logistics involved in organising the rest of the nine-game tour of Australia, including the three tests in Brisbane (June 22), Melbourne (June 29) and Sydney (July 6).

Irvine captained the Scottish Co-Optimists to the final of the Hong Kong Sevens in 1980 where they lost to Fiji 12-8. But he has fond memories of the city. He said: 'The facilities are first-class. We have been to the training grounds and we have no qualms on that front. We have also been to the stadium. It is wonderful, the condition of the field is fine and it's going to be a fantastic atmosphere.'

The idea of a Lions match was initiated by the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union a few years ago and the famous touring side were sold on it from the outset. 'With HSBC our main sponsor ... it was felt this would be a good idea for the Lions to have the opportunity play in Hong Kong and also to help spread the message of rugby in Asia,' Irvine said.

'Hong Kong is on the way to Australia, it has a strong rugby reputation and ticks a lot of boxes. But in fairness, the Australian Rugby Union gave a helping hand when they agreed to concede a game.

'There are only so many fixture days and Australia generously agreed to drop one of their games so we could play in Hong Kong.

'It is great for the game. I'm a huge believer in the philosophy of the Lions and for the Lions to get the opportunity to play in such a major Asian city is great. We were 100 per cent behind the idea of playing in Hong Kong from the outset.'

Irvine won 51 caps for Scotland and is himself a proud Lion, earning nine caps in 1974 (South Africa), 1977 (New Zealand) and 1980 (South Africa). He believes it would be great to see a Hong Kong player on the field on June 1 in the colours of the Barbarians, ready to take on the Lions.

'I really hope the Baabaas will pick a local player because it will be part and parcel of what we are trying to do, which is to spread the game across Asia,' Irvine said. 'If a local player is picked, it will be a tremendous honour and something he and his family will think back to for the rest of their lives.'

He added: 'In theory the Barbarians could pick any team in the world as long as they are available. I think they will have a strong New Zealand, Australian and possibly European influence, possibly South African.'

One thing Irvine is certain of is that Hong Kong Stadium will be packed to the rafters, rain or shine.

'I would be very surprised if it isn't a full house. A lot of people will come from the UK. They'll want to visit this great city and take in a Lions game. It will be a wonderful occasion.'