The British and Irish Lions are one of the most famous and successful franchises in world sport. Every four years the Lions – selected from the national Rugby Union sides of England , Wales, Scotland and All Ireland – head to the southern hemisphere to do battle with the leading rugby nations of New Zealand, Australia or South Africa. Ask any international player of the Home Nations what would be the peak of their career it would be to play for
the British and Irish Lions. Ask any international player of the southern hemisphere nations New Zealand, Australia or South Africa what would be the peak of their career it would be to play against
the British and Irish Lions. After all, they would almost certainly only get that opportunity once in their careers as the Lions only come to their country every twelve years. Ask any international player for lesser but important rugby playing nations like France, Argentina, Canada or the USA what would be the peak of their career it would be for the Lions to change their policy and arrange a tour of their country. And ask any female international player of the Home Nations what would be the peak of their career it would be for a touring team of Lionesses to be organised.
It was therefore with great sadness and indeed disgust that I heard the news this week that the next Lions tour, to South Africa in 2021, has been further disadvantaged by the playing authorities. It has already been scheduled for a ridiculous five weeks into which eight matches will be somehow squeezed. Now we find that the preparation time has been effectively reduced to one week. That year’s English Premiership Final, scheduled for 26th
June, will take place just a week before the first tour match. The opening test takes place two weeks later.
This is ludicrous. It shows that these authorities do not care about the game. Their only interest is the money it produces in their domestic competitions. The Premiership is already running great risks with the health of their players as they already play too many matches. The home nations are just about to start on a series of ‘friendly’ international fixtures against visiting southern hemisphere sides and the England team for one cannot call upon the services of many of their best players through injury.
The clash between club and country is a growing problem in international sport. In cricket it has resulted in a strange arrangement where the leading players are contracted to the national team and only occasionally play for their ‘clubs’ or counties. Most of the money in the sport comes in from TV coverage of international matches and is then filtered down to the clubs to keep them going, as their matches, deprived of the best players, are poorly supported. But it is the counties that developed the players in the first place and gave them the chance to practice their skills.
In football there is so much money sloshing around from TV coverage but the international schedule, with a big summer tournament every other year, means that the top players are playing virtually all year round and many of them burn out.
But in Rugby Union the game is much more physical featuring body to body clashes with little protection. Sam Warburton retired this year at the age of 29 as Wales’s most capped captain. But when asked to reflect on his career he said that captaining the Lions had been his guiding ambition since childhood. His part in the 2-1 series win against Australia in 2013 and the 1-1 draw with New Zealand last year stand out among his memories of a glittering career. And perhaps it is not too much to speculate that he decided to retire knowing that his body would not be up to the task of getting into the team to tour South Africa in 2021 at the great age of 32.
The first tour by the Lions took place in 1888 in New Zealand and Australia. It was not particularly auspicious as it failed to make much money and was not recognised by any of the Home Unions. No Tests were played, with 19 club and regional fixtures scheduled in New Zealand and 16 in Australia between April and October. They also played 19 games of Aussie Rules and a cricket match. While today any Lions squad would represent the best players in the British Isles, only three of the 1888 team had played for their country. The players in those days were genuine amateurs and not many could get the time off work for a six month tour. But of their 35 matches they won 27, drew six and only lost two.
The next tour took place in 1891 to South Africa and this was sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union (RFU). They notched 20 consecutive victories – 17 in provincial games and three in the Test matches conceding just one point. This time nine of the squad had represented their country, but only England or Scotland. Just as many came from the Cambridge University Light Blues.
They returned to South Africa in 1896 with a team bolstered by five of the Irish team who had won the Home Nations championship. They won 19 of 21 games but for the first time lost one of the four Tests played.
In 1899 they toured Australia with players selected from all four Home Unions for the first time. They again won the Test series 3-1 and won 15 of their 17 provincial games. At that time Aussie Rules and Rugby League were dominant in Australia and the Lions tour did a great deal to promote Rugby Union.
With the Boer War over it was back to South Africa in 1903 and this time the tables were turned. In their previous two tours the Lions had only lost one of 40 matches. This time they failed to win a single Test and won only 11 of their provincial matches; this despite including 13 full internationals in the touring team, including the captains of England, Ireland and Scotland.
The cycle of four yearly tours was still far in the future as the Lions went to Australia and New Zealand in 1904. They won all 14 matches in Australia including all three Tests but found it hard going in New Zealand losing the only Test and one of their four provincial games. The tour also marked the first sending off in Lions’ history. Oxford University and England forward Denys Dobson was ordered off for ‘dissent’ and the rest of the Lions team went off with him for 20 minutes in furious protest.
The 1908 tour was blighted by politics as Scotland and Ireland refused to sanction the series. The Anglo-Welsh outfit lost seven of 25 provincial matches and only managed a draw in one of the Tests in New Zealand losing the other two.
In 1910 for the first and only time two tours were organised: the first a six-match tour of Argentina including a single Test, the maiden international fixture for the hosts with a 28-3 victory for the Lions; the second a difficult tour of South Africa winning 12 and losing six of 21 provincial matches and again losing the Test series 1-2. But at least all four Home Nations were represented.
It was not until 1924 that the Lions tours were restored after the hiatus of the First World War but not much else had changed. The Lions drew one and lost three of the four-match Test series and only won nine of 17 provincial games.
In 1927 a tour of Argentina was quite one-sided with the Lions scoring 298 points and conceding just nine. Then in 1930, after a gap of 22 years, it was back to Australasia but again little had changed. The Lions found it difficult to raise a team approaching more than 100 players before raising a 29-man tour party. This showed on the field as they won only one of four Tests against New Zealand losing the other three and lost their only Test in Australia.
In 1936 they returned to Argentina for their third and, to date, final tour winning all ten matches including one Test 23-0. It is perhaps a shame that the Lions have not returned there as they might not find it so easy today.
By 1938 when the Lions made the final tour of the pre-war era to South Africa their hosts were world champions in all but name having gained series victories against both Australia and New Zealand the previous year. The Lions tour record was not too bad winning 16 of 21 provincial matches but in the Test Series they again lost 1-2.
It was not until 1950 that the Lions resumed touring after the Second World War, this time to New Zealand and Australia. Overall they won 22 out of 29 matches but only managed a draw against the All Blacks in four Tests, but won their two Tests in Australia. This tour represented the first time that all members of the touring party were full internationals.
By 1955 the host nation South Africa could claim that they had not lost a series on home soil against any opposition for 59 years. The Lions came close to changing that but in the end honours were even with a drawn series. The tourists won 17 of their 21 provincial games.
In 1959 the Lions played an incredible 33 fixtures in three countries, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They won the Test series in Australia 2-0, lost 1-3 in New Zealand and stopped off in Canada on the way home winning two provincial matches.
In 1962 they also visited Rhodesia and Kenya after a tour of South Africa in which they again failed to win a Test, drawing one and losing three.
!966 also saw a three-country tour of Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They began well enough with a 2-0 Test series win over the Wallabies but the Kiwi leg of the trip was marred by foul play and bad blood and the Governor General of New Zealand was asked to mediate between the two captains. The Lions lost all four Tests for the first time. The great New Zealand captain Colin Meads told the great future Lions captain Willie John McBride “You guys from the British Isles believe in fairy tales. There is no way with your haphazard approach and attitude, that you will ever beat us.”
In 1968 The Lions lost the Test series against the Springboks 0-3, drawing the second game. The only other points of distinction were John O’Shea being the first sending off for foul play after throwing a punch against Eastern Transvaal and Mike Gibson becoming the first international rugby’s substitute when he replaced Barry John in the Pretoria Test.
But it all changed in 1971. The tourists in New Zealand, led by John Dawes[i]
and coached by Carwyn James, achieved immortality. Beaten 0-4 just five years earlier they won the Test series 2-1. After 67 years and seven tours the Lions had finally overcome the All Blacks. They haven’t done it since.
They kept it going in South Africa in 1974 under the leadership of Willie John McBride. The tourists were unbeaten in all 22 games, winning the Test series 3-0. They might have made it 4-0 but the South African referee called for time four minutes early when the scores were deadlocked at 13-13. He disallowed a try that was scored just as he whistled prematurely. Confronted after the game by the Lions’ front row he said, “Look boys, I have to live here.” This may have been the greatest ever Lions side with a very strong pack and all-time greats like Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, and J.P.R. Williams in the backs.
The All Blacks got their revenge in 1977 winning the Test series 3-1. On the way home the Lions visited Fiji for the first time, but even lost the Test they played there 21-25.
In 1980 they visited South Africa despite opposition from the British government and the sporting boycott of the apartheid era. They won all 14 of their provincial fixtures, but injuries took their toll and they lost the Test series 1-3.
Back in New Zealand in 1983 the Lions lost heavily in all four Tests, the fourth by 6-38, the Lions’ biggest ever defeat.
The 1989 tour of Australia was the first to only visit that country since 1899. It was condensed to 12 fixtures and climaxed with Finlay Calder’s side making history by being the first to lose the opening Test and go on to win the series 2-1.
In 1993 Ian McGeechan became the first man to coach the Lions twice, four years after achieving victory over the Wallabies. However, the All Blacks came out ahead 2-1.
In 1997 the Lions returned to a post-apartheid South Africa. The Springboks were the reigning world champions but in the now professional era the Lions called on six former Rugby League players and won the Test series 2-1.
In 2001 the Lions were coached by a foreign head coach for the first time. New Zealander Graham Henry was the then Wales coach but they lost the series 1-2, their first Test series defeat in Australia.
In 2005 the Lions warmed up for the first time with an international on home soil playing Argentina at the Millennium stadium. But despite a huge squad of 44 players with a 26-strong management team they lost all the Tests in New Zealand by heavy margins.
In 2009 the South Africans were again reigning world champions and this time they did not fail winning the Test series against the Lions 2-1.
In 2013 the Lions were again coached by a New Zealander, Warren Gatland. This time they warmed up in Hong Kong and went on to a famous 2-1 series win in Australia.
In 2017 the Lions achieved their second best ever Test series in New Zealand. Coached by Warren Gatland again, this time in his native New Zealand they shared the series 1-1 drawing the final match.
The British and Irish Lions is a big sporting brand only rivalled by the Americas Cup in sailing and the Ryder Cup in golf. The Lions are defined by being the very best of the Home Unions on and off the field. Rivalries are put aside and lifetime friendships are forged. They are the living embodiment of a set of values that define the way rugby is played, shared and enjoyed.
A community is built up around the tour. 400 clubs hold festivals in the Home Nations. While the team in New Zealand played just ten matches last year they also had 21 engagements in 42 days, one involving 500 Maoris. The tour was the most anticipated sports event in 2017 and the tour of South Africa should be in 2021. In the United Kingdom the Lions are not only the most loved rugby team, it is the second most loved team after the British Olympic team. While there are football clubs that are loved they are all hated as well. Noone hates the Lions.
Sonny Bill Williamson, the famous all Black centre, said “12 years is far too long to wait to play the Lions again.” The great Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll said “I have often been asked if it is the pinnacle of a player’s career to be selected as a Lion and it is an interesting question given playing for your country is also very special. But the Lions are unique and further reward for your talent – you become recognised as one of the best 35 or so players in Britain and Ireland. So, yes, it is.”
But the English Premiership, by extending its domestic season to an absurd eleven months is putting all that at risk.