The British and Irish Lions. A melting pot of Caledonian, Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic and Celtic flare that comes together once every four years to take on the Southern Hemisphere with an objective to conquer a part of a world where rugby is a religion.
In recent years however, the Lions have faced unique challenges from outside the world of sport. As independence movements within Scotland and Wales gain support, does this threaten the future of a concept that is unique to rugby fans all across the globe?
The role of national identity
The Lions will always remain a unique concept to those in the world of sport. The idea that you can put together a team to take on the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses every four years is extraordinary.
Alex Payne, Sky Sports lead presenter of rugby union, perfectly sums this up: ”Nothing about the Lions should work and yet it does because of the history and the significance of it.”
Not only is a Lions tour a memorable one for players and coaches, alike the fans also play a big part in it too. However, the Lions tour of 2021 will not be played in front of the sea of red that infiltrates the stadiums every four years.
“What you’re doing is that your taking people out of their normal club and country colours and sticking them into one shirt and saying, right get on with it and I think that does have an extraordinarily unifying power to it.
“Rugby supporters are a pretty amiable, jolly bunch but normally (due to covid restrictions fans are unable to travel) you would get 20-40,000 people flying from London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Dublin to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa”, added Payne
“For me the Lions is the most special thing in sport, I hold it above everything else and the power of bringing four into one, is a very large part of that not just from player perspective but also from the supporters as well.”
The Lions can draw parallels to Golf’s Ryder Cup in terms of unifying one team together. Payne also suggests there is a sense that if these competitions were held every year it would lose its romance.
“It is the fact that its every four years and there are brilliant players who never get to feature for the Lions and there are some players that burn very brightly for a short amount of time and they burn brightly at the right moment and all of that feeds into the fact that the rarity, in the moment.
“All of that feeds into the celebration, the circus, the colour, the chaos, the drama, the storylines that both the Lions and Ryder Cup throw up. I think it is the unique nature of being in that one moment that sort of stands it apart.”
The rules on eligibility have provided the Lions with a certain uniqueness. The past tour to New Zealand saw the likes of CJ Stander and Mako Vunipola play whilst Warren Gatland kept his place from 2013. Names like these are significant given how the rules on eligibility have made rugby the global game and how interconnected it has become.
When Gatland was announced as the coach for the 2021 Lions tour to South Africa he followed in footsteps of a fellow kiwi Sir Graham Henry who coached the Lions in 2001.
This clearly demonstrates the power of rugby becoming a globalised game, something which Payne sees in the Lions.
“Rugby is a global game and Mako is a proud Englishman, CJ Stander has been a proud member of the Irish rugby community, so I don’t see that as a sort of rightly representing their countries and they earn their jerseys as it were and therefore, they are fully eligible to play for the Lions.
“Professionalism in sport means that you get the best person for the job regardless of where they come from.
“The days of Celtic, where you had a European Cup winning team in 1967 when they were born within two miles of Celtic Park, those days are long gone.
“We live in a globalised world, you can get to the other side of the planet within 24 hours, we holiday on foreign shores and we all move around a lot more so the Lions represents the world that we live in now and I think that is a good thing. Those question marks around conversations of eligibility are fast fading into a yesteryear conversation.”
“It’s not actually about you. It’s about a team”
A Lions tour should always be about making bonds. Bonds that are meant to last a lifetime. No matter how a player aligns themselves politically or which country they represent internationally, the bonds that can form are what make a Lions tour work.
Former England player, Ugo Monye was lucky to enough to be in the company of true rugby greats and spoke fondly of the experiences he has had on the tour and in retirement working as a pundit for BBC Radio 5 live and BT Sport.
“It’s an unbreakable bond. I know it’s really cliched, but it’s true. I was commentating with Tommy Bowe and James Hook, it’s just brilliant. Sir Ian McGeechan says there’s always this look, And he’s right.
“I spent a fair amount of my time watching some of these players play, playing against some of them, now you’re teammates. It’s nuts.”
“So you do whatever you can just to be able to make that team, a team quickly because you’ve got to go from this barbarian rabble, into the best of the best, to beat the best of the best very quickly. You’ve literally got to do it in a matter of two weeks from our first training session, to first game was two and a half weeks maybe even less actually.”
The role of national identity can play a big part within a tour but Monye clearly believes no matter what background, race or class you come from, the potential is there to make a strong Lions team that can beat the very best.
Monye also admits that the 2009 tour was the favourite of some players who would then play a part in the triumphant 2013 tour.
“The SA tour was like no other. And if you speak to guys that been multiple lions tours like Brian O’Driscoll, or O’Connell, they’ll say that’s their favourite tour, which is nuts considered they won in ’13.”
The 2009 tour was the first tour that future head coach Warren Gatland was on as assistant to McGeechan and Monye relates to how personal he was.
“In my first training sessions I walked into a hotel. Warren said sit down and have a beer, and I thought he was testing me. I was like ‘what, no, can I have a protein shake please?’ and he was like ‘no, have a beer’. I sit there and have a beer, and he just wanted to get to know you, and he knew, the best way to do that was by having a coffee or a beer. It wasn’t a test; he genuinely just wanted to sit down and get to know me.”
Forming a clique
Scott Hastings had brotherly company when he was a Lions tourist in both 1989 and 1993. His brother Gavin was key part of the squad with his incredible goal kicking that won him many plaudits throughout his career and was named tour captain in 1993 to New Zealand.
Hastings summed up the experience of playing with his brother on the Lions tour saying: “Gavin and I are the only pair of brothers ever to go on two Lions tours so that makes it special.
“Playing for Scotland, playing for the Lions was always really special and that special bond brings back some great memories which we can share to this day.”
Hastings also shared his experiences of how barriers had to be broken down but unfortunately for him and Gavin they kept on getting fined.
“My experience was you had to break down those barriers, we had some fun touring in 89 and 93 when we tried not to mix with your own country, you had to speak with other people. You get fined if you formed a clique, so if you find two welshman together you could fine them.
“Unfortunately for myself and my brother Gavin, we kept on getting fined, not as a Scottish clique but as a Hastings clique so we had to make secret meetings to see each other but that’s all part and parcel of the camaraderie of touring and those barriers being broken down.
“There wasn’t a lot of cross border competition in playing against each other until it was the Six Nations where now a lot of players will play in the same club team in the Premiership or across in France so theres a lot more social interaction.
“In that case for this touring party actually helps but the beauty of the Lions is when they go to South Africa for that tour, that team will never ever tour again and that’s what makes it unique, that’s what makes it special.
“Its important that they understand not only the history behind it, playing for the Lions but how they can benefit as players themselves because not everybody is going to play in that test team and yes your going to be frustrated, yes your going to be annoyed you weren’t in that test team but at the end of the day your still a Lion and your still contributing to that incredible test arena.”