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AUCKLAND (Reuters) - British and Irish Lions tour manager John Spencer believes the team would have won the test series against New Zealand had they had one more week of preparation time.
The Lions held the All Blacks to a 15-15 draw in Saturday's third test to share the series and will be only the second squad after the triumphant 1971 team not to return home from New Zealand as losers.
With the future of the concept under threat in a crowded rugby calendar, Spencer warned on Saturday that English players could be omitted from future Lions squads if their clubs did not release them in time to properly prepare for tours.
On Sunday, he returned to the theme when he was asked if an extra week on tour would have given the Lions the edge in the series against the world champions.
"My honest opinion is yes," he told reporters. "I think that preparation is extremely important. Gold medals are won on the training pitch, long before they are won on the rugby pitch."
The powerful English clubs have been reported in the British media to be demanding Lions tours be reduced from 10 to eight matches to avoid an overlap with the climax of the domestic season.
Spencer believes that would fatally undermine the chance of forging a successful test team from the players of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
"The most important thing is we really need to sit down with all the stakeholders, surely it's not beyond the wit of man to come to some sensible agreement for just a few weeks every four years?" he said.
"These players have now put the Lions in a very special place and we don't want to lose that, we want to encourage people to take part in the Lions.
"We need to talk about it in a friendly and positive way, and I think there are good signs that there is a positive way forward on this."
Spencer also paid tribute to Warren Gatland, the New Zealander who led the Lions to a series triumph in Australia in 2013 and the tie against the All Blacks.
"You have to be a very shrewd coach to come to New Zealand and achieve what the players achieved yesterday," the Englishman added.
"I will tell you, without doubt, I think he's the best head coach in the world and he's proved that with this team."
Under the touring rotation in place for the last few decades, the Lions will visit South Africa in 2021, then Australia in 2025 before returning to New Zealand in 2029.
In Spencer's opinion, the excitement generated by the tour, as well as the spending power of the Red Army of fans that follows the tourists, had ensured the future of the Lions concept, in New Zealand at least.
"I think the Lions will leave a legacy here that is valuable, that is positive, and it will make them want us back again," he said.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty