The bigger the challenge, the bigger the Lions’ opportunity, says John Spencer

John Spencer, pictured at last month's media conference to announce the 2017 British and Irish Lions' coaching staff (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire).
John Spencer, pictured at last month's media conference to announce the 2017 British and Irish Lions' coaching staff (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire).
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IT IS an indication of just how much excitement the British Lions generate that their Twitter feed yesterday declared it is “just” 150 days until the first game of its tour to New Zealand and no one thought to suggest it was an irrelevant marker.

People have been counting down for years so who can argue when the date – June 1 and a clash in Whangarei – looms larger on the horizon?

For John Spencer, the former England captain who played on the last Lions trip to win a Test series there in 1971, things are crystallising especially.

The proud Yorkshireman – he still lives at Threshfield in the Dales overlooking the Wharfedale rugby club of which he is president – will be tour manager when the famous Lions head out to face the revered world champions later this summer.

“It’s getting very exciting now,” Spencer told The Yorkshire Post, having been appointed to the role in July 2014.

“We’re going out on Thursday to do another recce with the heads of department and the head coach. That will be to tie up some loose ends with hotels, training venues, transport and gyms, but also visiting sponsors and meeting with the New Zealand RU to sort out one or two final details.

“We’ll be going to some schools and hospitals as well, engaging with the communities as it’s very important that the Lions are not just seen as a rugby team only focused on rugby.

“We have to encourage and inspire people to get better, play the game, or play it better.”

When Spencer was first named as the man to succeed Andy Irvine, the former Scotland captain who was in charge for the victorious 2013 trip to Australia, New Zealand were seemingly at the height of their powers as world champions and with the likes of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter in their pomp.

Those two luminaries have since exited the international stage following another Webb Ellis Cup success in 2015, but the iconic All Blacks have not lost any of their guile or swagger.

Spencer admitted: “The All Blacks are more seamless than anyone in terms of continuity.

“They have taken the game to a higher level, which they seem to do every year, so we have to maintain the chase, as it were.

“It’s a huge challenge to beat them on their own territory when they’re back-to-back world champions and two of the Tests are at a ground (Auckland) where no one else has won since 1994.

“But the bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for players and, more importantly, the Lions.”

Furthermore, Ireland proved, in America of all places, that New Zealand do have their flaws, clinically ending their 18-game winning run last November.

“There are a couple of good things about that,” said Spencer, the former Headingley centre who won 14 England caps.

“Firstly, it means we can take some players to New Zealand who have beaten the All Blacks whether with England in 2012 or Ireland in that game in Chicago.

“But people know it can be done and actually have done it – beaten them. Secondly, it gives the guys confidence. We don’t want anyone on the plane who doesn’t believe we can beat the All Blacks. I think self-belief is extremely important for players.”

Of course, the itinerary has come in for criticism – that opening warm-up game comes just seven days after the Premiership final and anyone involved in that Twickenham showpiece may not arrive in New Zealand with much preparation time ahead of the first Test in Auckland on June 24.

Spencer, 69, countered: “Yes, the preparation isn’t ideal – we know that – but when this was all first arranged all those years ago back in 2005, there wasn’t even any (Premiership) play-offs to speak of. We didn’t arrange the schedule and don’t have any facility to do so.

“We just have to hope that when World Rugby look at a global calendar for the sport they think about the Lions, too.

“I’m confident with Bill Beaumont now as chairman of World Rugby, they will keep open the dialogue on a global season and hopefully the Lions will be taken into account in those discussions.

“For now, we have to deal with our lot and we want to be tested.”

Meanwhile, he is hoping for a less stressful trip when he flies out tomorrow compared to his last one in the summer.

“I got an infection in my knee, had an operation in Auckland and spent nearly three weeks in the hospital there with another week back here,” said Spencer.

“I was on antibiotics via a drip for 11 weeks so got used to looking at ceilings. I’ve had another knee replacement, but I’m recovering well and went for a three-mile walk over Christmas.

“This will be the third time I’ve been out to New Zealand on Lions business. I was meant to go again in October, but missed that with being in hospital again.”