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Touch-down: British and Irish Lions arrive for first Asian game

Jamie Heaslip travelled to Hong Kong via the future.

Image: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

THE STAR-STUDDED British and Irish Lions touched down in Hong Kong today for the first Asian tour match in their 125-year history, ahead of the three-Test series with Australia.

The 37-man squad were given a warm welcome as they arrived at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport wearing red Lions T-shirts.

Captain Sam Warburton and Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg posed with local schoolchildren who displayed a banner in Chinese saying “Welcome British and Irish Lions to Hong Kong” alongside the Lions mascot, Billy.

The Lions, who visit one southern hemisphere rugby nation every four years, kick off their tour on Saturday when they play the Barbarians at the 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium, venue for the annual Hong Kong Sevens tournament.

The Lions’ first ever game in Asia adds to rugby’s steadily growing presence in the region, including Bledisloe Cup games between Australia and New Zealand in Hong Kong and Japan’s hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Saturday’s match is a warm-up for the Lions’ tour of Australia, when they will try to end a three-series losing streak since defeating South Africa in 1997.

Their last visit to Australia in 2001 saw them edged out 2-1 in the gripping final instalment of a brutal series against John Eales’s Wallabies. Subsequently the Lions have suffered a thumping 3-0 loss to New Zealand in 2005 and a 2-1 reverse against South Africa in 2009.

After their first run-out on Saturday against the “Baa-Baas”, who lost 40-12 to a young England side at Twickenham on Sunday, the Lions will fly to Perth to face Super 15 side Western Force on Wednesday.

They will then play five more warm-ups before the Test series begins in Brisbane on June 22. The second Test is in Melbourne a week later, and the series wraps up in Sydney on 6 July.

Coach Warren Gatland has selected 15 Welshmen in his squad, Wales’s largest Lions representation in 36 years. Ireland contribute 10 Lions since the inclusion of hooker Rory Best as a late replacement for the suspended Englishman Dylan Hartley. The England contingent now numbers nine and there are three from Scotland.

© AFP, 2013

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