The British and Irish Lions arrived in Hong Kong yesterday 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 their 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 yesterday 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,” Lions tour manager Andy Irvine said on Sunday. “Despite the circumstances, we should congratulate Rory, who will join the squad 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.