Fitzpatrick sees Lions tour schedule as a positive not a nightmare

ALL BLACKS great Sean Fitzpatrick believes the most daunting fixture schedule to ever face the Lions will ensure they are battle-hardened for the three-Test series against the reigning world champions in New Zealand.

The Lions start the 10-match tour with the easiest game — against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on Saturday — and, as well as the three Tests, face the country’s five powerful Super Rugby franchises, plus the Maoris.

But former All Blacks skipper Fitzpatrick, who is now on the board of Harlequins, sees only positives from the tourists’ heavy workload.

“Everyone is saying this is the tour from hell and a suicidal fixture schedule but I don’t agree,” he said. “If I was a Lions player I would want to play against the best and New Zealand has some of the best provincial and club players in the world.

“Even if they lose a couple of games, the Lions will be battle-hardened going into the First Test. I am truly excited the Lions have such a good squad and will be playing quality opposition. “Billy Vunipola being injured is a huge loss to the Lions but they have real depth and there are guys like Taulupe Faletau and CJ Stander who will make a real impact. I like what I see with Stander and you need guys with great engines and who stick their hands up all the time.

“I see Owen Farrell as a No10 because the Lions have enough depth in midfield and he can control games — and with Johnny Sexton they have two of the best. Farrell is also the best in the world when it comes to goal-kicking.

“There are so many Lions in contention you would struggle to name 10 who are definitely going to be in the Test side, which is good.”

Fitzpatrick believes his own country’s strength in depth has made the Super Rugby matches between the New Zealand teams “Test standard” and that will ensure they are ready to give Lions head coach Warren Gatland’s men a difficult time in every fixture.

“The recent match between the Chiefs and Crusaders was just outstanding,” he added. “I am also liking the players coming through at a time when there are injury worries to regular All Blacks — and we are seeing the emergence of guys who we haven’t previously heard about.

“The All Blacks selectors have been in the job long enough to have created the strength in depth that you need for a Test series when there are going to injuries.

“When they won the World Cup again in 2015, they had 31 players who could have been picked to start the final.

“Last year, having lost some of the greatest All Blacks ever, like Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Ma’a Nonu, they were an even better side.”

The Lions tour of New Zealand starts on Saturday, live exclusively on Sky Sports FITZPATRICK’S TWO TO WATCH… RIEKO IOANE (Blues, below left) A 20-year-old centre and former Sevens star who made his Test debut last year. Fitzpatrick verdict: “Ioane has shown what a fantastic player he is and is a real threat with ball in hand to any team.”

JORDIE BARRETT (Hurricanes) The 20-year-old brother of All Blacks No10 Beauden can play full-back or centre. Fitzpatrick verdict: “He could be a sensation during the tour and, like Ioane, could potentially play in the first Test.”

as seen in Evening Standard