In rugby, a Lions year is always extra special. Not quite a World Cup, but in many ways equally as important. A series victory as a British and Irish Lion is rare, and the comradery gained between victorious team mates lasts a lifetime.
Rewind to the last big challenge – the 2015 World Cup. The ins and outs of that tournament have long been discussed, but the state of the nations after? Ireland and Scotland had cause for optimism and disappointment in equal measure. Wales had beaten the old enemy England, but then lost narrowly in the quarter finals to a well-drilled South African team. And the old enemy themselves? A shambles.
England, the same England who went through the following calendar year unbeaten under new coach Eddie Jones. England who ended 2016 as the obvious nation to provide the bulk of the Lions squad, with Ireland close behind.
How Eddie Jones turned English fortunes around in such a short space of time might be the stuff of legend in a few years when reminiscing down the pub, but right now it is simply a case of good coaching and raw talent. England always had a nucleus of decent players – Farrell, Brown, Launchbury, the Vunipola brothers, Care, Ben Youngs. What they lacked was the killer instinct and given they were led by an eminently nice coach in Stuart Lancaster and a decent captain in Chris Robshaw known for being a throughly good human being, that is hardly surprising.
Enter Jones. Snarly, gnarled, experienced, an Aussie who says what he thinks and holds no prisoners. He quickly unearthed a mean streak and taught England that nice guys unfortunately do finish last. He picked a captain in Dylan Hartley known for being rough around the edges, despite serious questions over his discipline. He encouraged England to be quicker and more tactically astute around the breakdown. He turned a squad of nice guys into winners.
A strong England tends to mean everyone else steps up their game too. As the old adage goes, you want to win every match, but you want to beat England the most. We have certainly seen this with Ireland who beat the All Blacks and Australia in November and seen genuinely world-class when fly half Johnny Sexton is pulling the strings. Scotland came agonising close to beating World Cup runners-up Australia yet again and Wales finally beat one of the big three, downing a tired and insipid South African team in Cardiff.
All of this points to the conclusion that far from being beaten before their twinkle toed rugby boots hit the hallowed turf of Eden Park, the British and Irish Lions stand a fairly decent chance of competing with and even beating the reigning World Cup Champions.
Farrell and Sexton calling the shots. Hogg scything through the defensive lines. Stander on the charge, with Jonny Gray on his shoulder to bundle him through the first tackle. Dreams to be savoured.
The one thing they might be missing? Man of the moment Jones. If he can turn England’s 2015 has beens into 2016 Grand Slam champions, then just imagine what magic he could have worked on the talents of the British and Irish Lions.