In the wake of the gold medals, glamour, wide grins and all-round glory of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, 2013 may appear to be a comparatively quiet year for sport.
But to view the next 12 months as an athletic backwater would be to ignore the considerable event that is the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour to Australia.
Arguably the ultimate rugby union extravaganza, a Lions tour takes place only once every four years. And 2013’s adventure to the Southern Hemisphere could be one of the most dramatic yet, seeing the best players from home shores take on Australia over three gruelling Test matches (with an additional match against the Barbarians in Hong Kong).
In all, this sporting force will play ten fixtures between 1 June and 6 July – and every try, pass, drop goal and conversion will be cheered by a vast travelling army of supporters.
Here, TravelMail talks to Jason Robinson – a veteran of the last Lions tour to Australia, in 2001 (as well as of the 2005 tour to New Zealand) – about his favourite tour memories, his holiday tips for those going Down Under, and why he loves the country as a destination.
A Lions tour to Australia must stir a few memories. Are you already in the mood?
Definitely, yes. Having played in the 2001 series, which we should have won, but didn’t [the Lions lost the three-match series 2-1, despite winning the first Test], I believe this will be our year. I’m excited about the Lions, and getting out there to see how they do.
Will you be travelling out for the entire tour?
Probably not the whole thing, but I’ll be there for the majority of it. And I’m hoping to be out for the Hong Kong game [against the Barbarians]. That will be fantastic. I’ve been to Hong Kong before, and seen how passionate people are about the game there. To have the Lions going to play the Barbarians there – well, it’s obviously historic for the sport.
You played in the first Test in Brisbane in 2001, and scored. Is that your favourite memory of playing on Australian soil?
It has to be one of my best memories as a Lions player. The noise that erupted when we came out into the stadium will stay with everyone who played for the rest of their lives. It was one of the best – if not the best – atmospheres I’ve ever played in. It almost felt like a home game, there were so many travelling Lions fans. The game was intense, we won, and I managed to score that first try after a couple of minutes. An amazing Test match.
Was that first Test a greater moment for you than the win in the 2003 World Cup Final [when Robinson scored England’s only try in a 20-17 victory over Australia]?
Well, those are two of my top memories, obviously. There’s no doubt that playing for England is special, especially in a World Cup. But if you are selected for England, you know you are one of the best players in England. If you are selected for the Lions, you are also being picked alongside Welsh, Scottish and Irish players. That takes some doing. It is hard to get a Lions shirt, even harder to do it justice. There is a lot riding on the shirt. That’s why thousands of people save up for four years to come out and watch the team.
Will it be good to go back to Australia? Is it a place you’ve always enjoyed visiting?
It will. Because it’s so far away, you have to make the most of it. I have great memories of going to places like Cairns and Port Douglas [both in Queensland], and of seeing the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is something you have to see. I love nature programmes, and it’s great seeing it on TV. But seeing it for yourself is another thing.
The Gold Coast is great. And I love Manly [just north of Sydney]. Manly Beach is an excellent spot, with loads of good restaurants. I like Australia because it’s chilled, laid-back, with brilliant weather – and everything is more or less geared to outdoor living.
And it’s such a vast area. To go from Perth to Sydney – it’s such a distance.
There’s so much for supporters to do. Australia is more than a place simply to go on tour and watch rugby. Fans going out this year will see all these different places [the tour ticks off Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne], and come back with fantastic memories.
Did you manage to dive at the Great Barrier Reef?
I took a closer look, but I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to water and fish. I’m not the bravest of snorkellers. But it’s another world. To have your head under the water and see the Reef, and all the species of fish, is amazing. It makes such a big impression on you.
Have you seen much of Australia beyond your rugby tours?
Every time I’ve been to Australia, I’ve tagged a holiday onto the back of a tour. What I’m hoping to do this year, because I’m not playing, is to see a bit more of the country.
When you go out as a player, you are so focussed on performing – going from hotels to training fields to stadiums – that you miss a lot of stuff. Little things like seeing a koala for the first time – you can’t fully immerse yourself, because you are there to do a job.
But you do get days off where you can wander about and see some of the sights. The old side of Perth is amazing, the old buildings. You can tell it’s a real family place. You can go walking all over the place, parks and beaches. Townsville and Brisbane [both in Queensland] are also brilliant places. But I must admit, I’d like to explore a little bit more this time.
Is there anywhere you really hope to see this time?
Ayers Rock. That would be quite an experience. It’s a bit off the beaten track, but you can fly in very easily, spend a bit of time. I certainly won’t be walking all the way there!
Do you have any tips for travellers going to Australia?
Because it’s such a long way to go, you have to make the most of it. Get up and get out. There’s a lot to do and see in Sydney. Planning your trip before you get there is key.
Where else have you travelled?
I’ve been to the Florida Keys, and I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Europe – Portugal, France, Italy. I’m very fond of Sardinia. I love the culture there, the food, the weather.
I tend not to do so many long journeys, but I’ve been very taken with Hong Kong. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been there – to Kowloon and the markets. The food and culture is fantastic, and it’s a great place to experience for anyone travelling.
You toured New Zealand with the Lions in 2005. Where were your favourite places?
Probably the South Island. We had time off there. Some of the guys did some skiing and bungee jumping in Queenstown. That was an interesting place. A real adrenaline place, lively, lots of bars and restaurants. I enjoyed that. The 2005 tour was very tough. We got spanked out there [the Lions lost the Test series 3-0]. That New Zealand side was awesome. My better memories from that tour are of down-time in Queenstown rather than on the field.
Lastly, do you want to make a quick overall prediction for the 2013 Lions tour?
I’m going to say 2-1 to the Lions. I really believe the Lions will be successful.