British and Irish Lions arrive in Hong Kong

The British and Irish Lions have arrived in Hong Kong ahead of a month-long tour of Australia where they will seek their first Test series victory in 16 years.

The Lions, whose squad includes Irish hooker Rory Best, a late replacement for banned Englishman Dylan Hartley, play the Barbarians at Hong Kong Stadium on Saturday before embarking on their three-Test trip to Australia next week.

Three days ago, after Ulster hooker Best had been on the losing side against Leinster in the Pro12 final in Dublin, he was mentally preparing to head west across the Atlantic and captain Ireland on the summer tour to North America.

Instead, after a phone call from Lions management, he hastily packed his kit bag, made a quick dash to London and on Tuesday was among the 37 players landing at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport.

Best got the call-up to replace Hartley who, while the Irishman was toiling at the RDS Arena on Saturday, was at Twickenham being red-carded from the English Premiership final and, ultimately, the Lions tour.

Hartley’s verbal volley at referee Wayne Barnes while playing for Northampton against Leicester, which contained a profanity and the word “cheat”, was rapidly followed with an 11-week ban, ending his tour before it had begun.

Hartley may yet appeal, but a reprieve is highly unlikely.

“With uncertainty over the availability of Dylan Hartley to tour, and with the first of 10 matches only days away, we had no option but to call up the additional player,” said Lions tour manager Andy Irvine on Sunday.

“Despite the circumstances we should congratulate Rory, who will join the squad tomorrow and fly with us to Hong Kong.”

Best’s inclusion means that there are now 10 Irishmen in the squad for the 10-match tour, while the English contingent has fallen to nine.

Captain Sam Warburton is one of 15 representatives from Six Nations champions Wales and the touring party is completed by three Scots.

Since beating South Africa in 1997, the Lions have lost three Test series in a row including a narrow 2-1 defeat to a John Eales-led Australia in 2001.

They begin their itinerary against the Barbarians who, having lost 40-12 to England on Sunday, should prove relatively gentle opponents despite the likely 30C heat (86F) and stifling humidity at the 7:30 pm (1130 GMT) kick-off time.

The opening-match workload will almost certainly be carried by the 22 players in the squad who were not involved in club season finales at the weekend.

The rest, with Best among them, will get their first chance to pitch for Test places against the Wallabies when the Lions face Super 15 side Western Force in Perth four days later.

And the Irishman has made it clear he will not be content merely to make up the numbers as a late replacement — he wants a Test berth.

“There will be 37 players getting on a plane to Hong Kong tomorrow aiming to make the Test squad and I am no different,” he told the Ulster Rugby website on Sunday.

“I am as ambitious as everyone else. To be on the tour is unbelievable, but you have to go there and play your best rugby, put your hand up and see where that takes you.”

The British and Irish Lions face Australia in three Tests in Brisbane on June 22, Melbourne on June 29 and Sydney on July 6.

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