British & Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton poses during the squad announcement. Reuters Photo

KUALA LUMPUR: It is a country that provides the stiffest test for any rugby player, and with the national team – the All Blacks – winning the last two World Cups, who can argue with that?

Mindful of the challenge that awaits them from the opening game in Whangarei on June 3, the British and Irish Lions have named what some have described as their strongest ever – a squad of 41 players to be led for the second time by Sam Warburton of Wales.

Three of the players were born in New Zealand, with perhaps Jared Payne of Ulster and Ireland the most familiar with local supporters, having played Super Rugby with the Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues, before joining the Irish club in 2011.

Included are 16 players from the successful tour of Australia in 2013, also coached by Kiwi Warren Gatland.

Two players, lock Alun Wyn Jones and fullback Leigh Halfpenny, are touring for the third time.

The composition of the squad members are 16 from England, 12 from Wales, 11 from Ireland and two from Scotland, which understandably, hasn’t gone down well with Scottish supporters.

Of the four countries in the southern hemisphere the Lions have played against, they have won all three against Argentina, won 7 against two with Australia and four of 12 against the Springboks – but against the All Blacks, it’s only one win in 11 tours.

That was in 1971, on their seventh tour there, winning two Tests, drawing one and losing one. You only have to watch a recording of that final Test to see how resolutely they defended against an All Blacks that mounted wave after wave of attack in the second half.

That was indeed a very strong Lions party of 33, of whom 13 were Welsh players from the team that had earlier won the Five Nations Grand Slam.

Most of the Welsh players were legends in their own right – Barry John, Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams, Gerald Davies and Mervyn Davies amongst them.

In the fourth and final Test, which the All Blacks had to win to square the series, five of the seven backs were Welshmen. The coach and captain were both Welshmen.

But since then, the Lions have gone through a whitewash twice, losing the Tests 4-0 in 1983 and 3-0 in 2005.

Apart from losing all three Tests in 2005, the tourists lost 19-13 to a Maori that included their All Blacks players.

The other matches were against provincial sides, against whom they won all seven, including a 109-6 hammering of Manawatu.

But on the forthcoming tour, for the first time, the Lions will be taking on all five Super Rugby franchises, a few of which may be able to include their All Blacks, depending on the match dates in relation to the three Tests.

Right now, the Crusaders say they could field all their All Blacks. The same could be the case with the Blues, Highlanders and Maori - but not the Chiefs and Hurricanes since their games are in mid-week, before the first and second Tests respectively.

With this itinerary, the Lions are in no doubt as to what awaits them.

As defending world champions, the All Blacks will not want to lose another series at home, and having a stable and experienced squad in the two years since the last World Cup in 2015, means facing the Lions with confidence and an awesome reputation.

This wasn’t the case in 1971, when legendary All Blacks Colin “Pinetree” Meads had to lead a relatively inexperienced side following the retirement of several long-serving All Blacks.

That was a period when the All Blacks were still rebuilding and the same inexperience was also to surface during their tour of Britain, Ireland, France and North America in 1972/73.

A look at the successful Lions sides will show that a lot depends on the composition of the squad and how the respective home unions performed in the preceding Six Nations.

A squad of 41 with England providing the biggest number at 16 is a reflection of the form at home.

There were a few surprise inclusions and omissions when the squad was announced earlier in the week, but it still looks a solid, all-round touring party.

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