British & Irish Lions
Lions leave the comfort of their den
Tom Hamilton with the Lions
May 27, 2013
Warren Gatland fields questions from the media at their departure press conference © Getty Images

It has been 28 days since the original squad announcement for the British & Irish Lions' trip to Australia, but now the tour begins in earnest. At around 1800 BST on Monday, May 27, the bulk of the playing squad will have passed through passport control, gone to their allocated gate at Heathrow and boarded the plane to Hong Kong.

At the farewell press conference in Kensington on Monday, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation. Warren Gatland, dressed up to the nines in his Lions tracksuit, was in a jovial mood, joking with the media - despite his glum appearance in the photograph to the right. And for once, the questions did not revolve around a certain fly-half running out for Toulon. No, Dylan Hartley's suspension has taken the limelight off Jonny Wilkinson, though mention of the half-back occurred during Gethin Jenkins' time in front of the press.

Such is the beauty of the Lions beast, preparations for the forthcoming tour continue right until the moment their plane leaves the Heathrow tarmac. While Gatland seemed to take Hartley's suspension in his stride, it was clear he felt some sympathy for the hooker.

"Dylan's a young man who has made an unfortunate error. To play the game you have to play on the edge, but unfortunately he's gone to the edge of the cliff and jumped off it. That's the only analogy I can draw."

But Hartley's loss is Rory Best's gain. It is hard to think of any other member of the Lions squad who has experienced a roller-coaster season to the level of the Ulster hooker's. After the twists and turns of an eventful campaign for Ulster and Ireland, he had to cope with originally being left out of the Lions squad - he was training when the original 37-man party was being announced but realised he was not included when the Ulster coaches avoided making eye contact with him. But now he has received his last-minute call-up.

He had barely had a chance to meet his new team-mates, Gatland or the numerous backroom staff, before being thrust in front of the media when he arrived at their West London hotel. He was still sporting the scars of Ulster's PRO12 final loss to Leinster on Saturday but those in charge of the Lions' tailoring had managed to find some suitable kit to fit the hooker.

Rugby is a game of cruel twists and turns but Best now has a chance to write his name into Lions history. "It's something you dream of, an absolute honour to be here," the slightly startled Ireland hooker said. "I had to pull over on to the hard shoulder to make sure I didn't veer off the road at that stage.

"When you don't make the initial squad you try to stay fit and always keep your phone by your side. When the call came through it was a number I didn't recognise. I don't normally answer those but for this I made an exception. It was great news."

He will take his place on the plane, having sorted out his visa when the original longlist of Lions were contacted prior to the squad announcement, alongside 36 other men charged with bringing some glory back to a team who last won a series in 1997.

© Getty Images

And there will be few who appreciate that more than Brian O'Driscoll. On Monday he was fulfilling various media requirements but seemed at home in his Lions kit, it almost looked like a second skin. He has already done this three times before, having travelled in 2001, 2005 and 2009. He was at ease in the Lions environment but others are experiencing it for the first time.

O'Driscoll has hardly spent any time in the Lions mindset since the original squad announcement due to Leinster commitments; others have been living and breathing Lions since originally meeting up in Syon Park on May 13. Alex Cuthbert, decked out in his tailored Lions suit, said he was just keen to get going when he stepped, by chance, into the same lift as me. He has been with the squad since the outset.

And that was the general feeling of the whole occasion. The group have ticked all the required pre-tour boxes, whether it be dinners, media or sponsorship commitments, but the intensive 10-match schedule will soon be something they experience rather than daydream about.

Late call-ups, boarding pass changes, panicked suit fittings and the odd injury being monitored. It is the beauty of the Lions, and that is before you drop in the actual rugby - which kicks off on Saturday in Hong Kong.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

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