Belfast Telegraph

Ulster's three Lions bid families farewell before jetting off to tackle All Blacks

By Michael Sadlier

It looks like any other group of people who have arrived at the airport to start a journey - but this picture taken yesterday morning was of no ordinary gathering.

This was Ulster's trio of British and Irish Lions rugby players - forwards Rory Best, Iain Henderson and back Jared Payne - saying an emotional goodbye to loved ones ahead of embarking on a bruising five-week, 10-game odyssey to New Zealand for what could be the highlight of their playing careers.

On the far left stands Payne and in his arms is his young son Jake, while partner Christina Beattie looks on.

It was a particularly poignant moment for Payne, as the 31-year-old is a Kiwi and will be returning to his homeland to take on players he knows and sides he has turned out for.

Payne, who signed for Ulster back in 2011 and has played for Ireland 20 times after qualifying through residency, will be throwing everything at trying to down the mighty All Blacks and become part of the first Lions squad to win a series in New Zealand since 1971.

He will be hunting down Kiwis in the famous red shirt and will badly want to be part of the Test side who have three games with the All Blacks.

He already knows what it is like to beat the legendary men from the land of his birth after being part of Ireland's historic victory over the back-to-back world champions in Chicago last autumn. Next in line, and standing tall, is forward Iain Henderson, who already seems prepared for what will be winter in New Zealand when the Lions land in Auckland on Wednesday, and his fiancee Suzanne Flanagan. The couple are believed to be planning to tie the knot after the Lions tour when the highly rated 25-year-old gets back from his first taste of being part of a special squad drawn from the very best players from the home nations, and who only play every four years in either New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.

And on the right is Ireland skipper Rory Best and his family.

Wife Jodie holds their youngest child Richie while Rory keeps son Ben and daughter Penny close before getting on the flight to hook up with the rest of the squad in London for last night's farewell dinner.

This is the 34-year-old's second and last Lions tour, and the man who led Ireland to their first ever win over the All Blacks last November will badly want to make it a memorable one.

But, for all three, much of the difficulty that lies ahead is being apart from their nearest and dearest.

Still, they also have the chance of becoming rugby legends.

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