There are less than six months to go until the most hotly anticipated rugby tour for many years kicks off in New Zealand.
Lions tours are always a mouth-watering treat in spite of the Lions’ somewhat poor playing record when touring New Zealand, but in 2017 it is possible that the best Lions team ever could be assembled.
England’s resurgence under Eddie Jones and Ireland’s giant-killing feat against the All Blacks last year, mean that Lions supporters actually have reason to hope that their side could mark up their second series win against the All Blacks.
The players being talked about as Lions tourists are in many cases the equal of their New Zealand counterparts.
The Lions should be able to claim parity at least in the front row and depending on referee rulings could possibly claim ascendancy.
In the locks it should be a gigantic struggle. The Lions can claim more depth at lock than the All Blacks and this may be crucial as injuries could play a part.
If Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are fit for the series then it is likely that the All Blacks will win the locking battle but any other combination could hand the advantage to the Lions.
The loose forward battle should be shaded by the All Blacks. The Lions’ approach is likely to be more bruising while the All Blacks are likely to be pacier. Pace and guile should outflank and overcome brutality.
Halfback is an interesting situation. Should Aaron Smith get his house in order and get back to his best form he will shade any comer from the northern hemisphere, but the Lions should still be well served.
In the inside backs, if Beauden Barrett plays like he did in 2016 he could be the difference between the sides, but goalkicking is likely to favour the Lions.
While inexperience may count against the All Black midfield, their willingness to attack and create chances should put them marginally ahead of whatever midfield lines up against them. Big interest will focus on whether Sonny Bill Williams can make it back to form and if he does, he could be a point of difference.
Wings and fullback should be a clear point of difference where the All Blacks will have an edge. While Northern wings often look good against other teams, they tend to look pedestrian when up against New Zealand.
So, man-for-man the All Blacks should be better than the Lions, but there are many other factors at play which could contribute to the outcome.
The tour schedule is a killer. Before the first Test the Lions will play four Super teams, of which three are likely to be close to full strength with at least some of their All Blacks released.
They also play the Maori All Blacks – essentially a fourth test against what could be close to a New Zealand B team, and the Barbarians side cannot be easily discounted.
But the toughness of the schedule could count in the Lions’ favour. They will have several opportunities to get up to speed with the New Zealand pace and style of play.
They have six opportunities to practise beating top level New Zealand opposition and if they can win those games they will boost their confidence in competing against New Zealand teams.
If the Lions aren’t able to work out a plan to win in New Zealand after that sort of build-up, then they never will.
The Lions will be coming to the end of an arduous season and injury and tiredness could be taking a toll. But they will also be highly motivated by the one-in-twelve-year opportunity to beat the All Blacks, and this motivating factor should negate the tiredness factor.
The All Blacks will be playing their first games of the year together. They are notoriously slow starters in these June internationals. In recent years, England, Wales and France have all come close in at least the first Test of the tour, while Ireland have almost won the second Test.
Home crowd support is usually a factor in a tour, but these days the Lions’ touring support is numerous, fanatical and massively vocal. I was at the third Test in Sydney on the last Lions tour and the sea of red meant it was effectively a home crowd for the Lions.
Australian and New Zealand crowds tend to just sit and watch the game, but Lions supporters actively lift their team with chanting, singing and roaring support.
The stadiums are likely to be at least half full with Lions fans and the supporters advantage could actually tilt in favour of the Lions.
Coaching and gelling could be the big thing that undoes the Lions. While my old school mate Warren Gatland is a fine coach, he has never managed to come up with a game plan and the cattle to beat the All Blacks. This year he may have the cattle, but does he have the game plan?
Can the four nationalities work together cohesively towards the common goal? History says probably not, but history does not always repeat. Gatland has been on enough Lions tours now to have learned how to get them to work together and much will depend on how well he achieves this.
All injuries aside, with two teams well matched, the Lions well practised and the All Blacks potentially bumbling slightly in their first match of the year, the first Test is the Lions’ to lose. The second should probably go the way of the All Blacks and the third could be all on.
Whatever the outcome, it should be the highlight of 2017 and I have moved heaven and earth to be at the first Test with three pommie mates.
Hopefully they will be beating on me at the end as the All Blacks have stormed to victory, but I am expecting, in this game at least, that the Lions will make good on their potential and deliver.