Lions will sweat hearts out to beat All Blacks, vows Rory Best
Plenty of blood, sweat and toil during the early weeks in New Zealand will have the British and Irish Lions ready for the All Blacks, according to Ulster hero Rory Best.
In a schedule that has been criticised in some quarters, they will play six games before the first Test against the back-to-back World Cup winners on June 24, including four against high-flying Super Rugby franchises.
Best, however, thinks that the slate of fixtures will have the tourists much better prepared than they were to take on Australia last time around.
Back then, Warren Gatland's men split the first two Tests before romping home with a record score in the decider.
"Being on the one four years ago, when the Super Rugby sides removed all their Wallabies, it left the build-up games a lot easier," said the Irish skipper.
"The Australians weren't in the position they're in now, they're a lot stronger now than four years ago, and certainly I feel that four years ago, the result in the third Test was more an example of where the two teams where, the gulf between them.
"We weren't ready to play international rugby because the warm-up games had been so easy. That won't be the case this time around and it'll put us in a good place."
The Lions squad, who have been training in the Vale of Glamorgan this week minus their contingent involved in domestic semi-finals this weekend, will be facing the greatest challenge in world rugby when they take on the sport’s best side in their own backyard, but Best believes the squad assembled is capable of something special.
“They’re back-to-back World champions, they went 18 games unbeaten, so these guys are the real deal,” he said. “To win the Test series is going to be very difficult. But the realisation when you’re sat in that meeting room, we have 41 world-class players going and it’s going to put us in a really good spot.
“You look around and see the quality. Something special can be achieved if we go with belief.”
Having played only in the midweek team in Australia four years ago after getting called into the squad as a replacement when Dylan Hartley was suspended, Best’s personal goal will be to secure the No.2 jersey for that first Test in Eden Park.
The 34-year-old, however, insists he will not be looking any further than the opening game of the tour against a New Zealand Barbarians side on June 3.
“I remember I did a talk four years ago shortly after coming home, and one of my closing lines was after I was asked about this tour and I said, ‘my heart says I’d love to be there, but my head tells me that I won’t still be playing at that level’.
“So to have this opportunity now is something special. The last four years have been about proving something to myself.
“What I feel was picking up the pieces from the last tour, it’s something that’s been driving me.
“It was all about getting into the squad but the one goal left now is to get a Test shirt, but it’s like I said all season, if I had spent this year thinking about the Lions, my form in November would have suffered, my form in the Six Nations would have suffered.
“It’s the same now, if I look beyond the Barbarians then people will go past you in the warm-up games. It’s all got to be about the next game, the next training session.”
The hooker position has been made somewhat murkier though by the news that Wales’ Ken Owens will miss out on playing for Scarlets in tonight’s PRO12 semi-final with Leinster in the RDS.
The 30-year-old, who booked his place on the tour after a hugely impressive Six Nations, suffered an ankle injury at the start of the week.
Aside from Best and Owens, the only other hooker in the party is Saracens’ Jamie George.
Neil Jenkins, skills coach for the Lions, said: “Ken is missing a big game for the Scarlets, but with a bit of luck he will be okay for the tour.
“Players do get injured but we hope he will be fine, if not for the final then for the Lions.”
Were he to miss out, it seems most likely that controversial England captain Dylan Hartley would be the man called up as a replacement.
Ben Youngs is the only player to have withdrawn so far, doing so for personal reasons after it was revealed that his brother Tom’s wife was dealing with terminal cancer.
The Leicester and England No.9 was replaced by Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw.