Noble's Lions look for fitting climax to a great tradition

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The Independent Online

Brian Noble's men have the opportunity to mark the end of an era in style in the third and final Tri-Nations Series. The 2006 tournament, hosted jointly by Australia and New Zealand, will not only be the Lions' first major tour for 14 years but will be their last as Great Britain.

After this season, it will be England who host the incoming tour by New Zealand in 12 months' time and who travel to the centenary World Cup the following year in Australia.

Whether Noble will still be in charge remains to be seen, with his contract up at the end of November, but as a former Lions captain he will be doing all in his power to ensure Great Britain bring a century of tradition to a fitting conclusion. Beaten finalists in 2004 and wooden spoonists a year ago, Britain face a difficult task if they are to succeed on their travels where they failed on home soil.

The Kiwis, who ended Australia's long reign as world champions with their stunning 24-0 win in last November's Elland Road final, will be out to impress in their first home series for a decade.

Britain will have significantly more preparation time than on their whistle-stop trip to Sydney four years ago and Noble will be banking on the bonding process of touring to instil greater harmony and camaraderie in his camp. An advance party flies out on Tuesday under the assistant coach, Jon Sharp, to prepare for a warm-up fixture in Newcastle while the Grand Finalists go a week later, with 10 days to acclimatise before their opening match against New Zealand in Christchurch on 28 October.

The problem for Britain is that once again their opponents will be firmly battle-hardened by then, having played each other in Auckland and Melbourne, and be one step ahead of their long-distance visitors.

Britain's 25-strong squad has that essential mix of youth and experience with a touch of the unexpected. Normally steadfastly loyal to his troops, Noble has boldly chosen six new faces - including James Roby, Jon Wilkin and Gareth Hock - who have no mental scars to heal and will have the chance to return as heroes.

For the Kiwis, there will be no Sonny Bill Williams, Benji Marshall or Lesley Vainikolo to terrorise the Lions, but they managed well enough without that trio a year ago. Players like Iosia Soliola and Epalahame Lauaki may be unknown to British audiences at the moment, but may become household names by the end of November.

Australia, too, have something of a new look. The old guard of Trent Barrett, Ben Kennedy and Andrew Johns have made way for the bright young things such as Greg Inglish, Sam Thaiday and Justin Hodges.