Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Ugo Monye-  “Whenever you play South Africa there is some element of symbolism”

Posted on 7 July 2021 by Myles McDevitt

For some players that are picked for the British and Irish Lions, they can be in the form of their life leading up to the tour and find themselves picked. 

This is the case with Ugo Monye who represented the British and Irish Lions in 2009 to South Africa. Monye made his England debut in 2008 against the Pacific Islanders. 

Fast forward to March in the 2009 Six Nations and he was catching the eye of selectors with his excellent performances for England.

Visiting the home of the World Champions

The 2009 Lions tour to South Africa was an important tour. This was the Lions first visit to the rainbow nation since the glory days of 1997 when the Lions triumphed.

A dozen years later, the Lions went back to South Africa having lost two test series in a row to Australia and New Zealand respectively.

To add to this, the Springboks had been victorious at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France beating England in a try-less final.

Embed from Getty Images

Many Englishmen who played in that final were also tourists to South Africa in 2009. Phil Vickery, Simon Shaw and Andrew Sheridan are just some of the names that would be named in the Lions squad in 2009.

To those England players who had played in 2007, this was a chance to get back one on the Springboks. However, Monye only saw it as redemption.

“There were a lot of tourists that weren’t involved in 07, who went through the same emotions that England did in that final. And to a certain extent they probably got some sense of redemption, I mean they got their pants pulled down in the first game.” (England lost 36-0 to South Africa in the group stage)

The Springboks side in 2009 was packed full of World Cup winners such as captain John Smit, Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana, whose was Monye’s opposite.

“I landed in South Africa, playing against, the best African team there has ever been” Monye said.

The Lions had lost the first test and were looking likely to pull off the victory in the second test only for a late penalty to break Lions hearts.

 The third and final test at Ellis Park, Johannesburg would see the Lions playing for pride that had seen them come very close to edging the Springboks in the first two tests.

The Lions would win that final test by 28-9 with Monye scoring one of the most memorable Lions tries of all time running nearly 70 metres of the pitch at Ellis Park to score underneath the posts to an ear-deafening noise of jubilant Lions supporters.

Embed from Getty Images

Monye brilliantly describes the try : “I didn’t jump out of the line to catch the ball, I jumped out of the line to make a tackle, because that was the Shaun Edwards effect, a hard heavy press, but as I was within a couple of feet, I thought I could get to this. 

“As soon as I caught, I knew I would score, it’s one of those where, without being arrogant, I knew wasn’t going to be caught.”

Diversity within rugby and the Lions

Monye has been widely praised in the sports industry for the way he spoke eloquently on the Black Lives Matter movement. His words have made rugby union authorities sit up and take notice of the growing issue of racism that is currently present within the sport.

Embed from Getty Images

Over time and within the professional era, diversity has been critical to launch the Lions into the successful brand they are. Many great Lions moments have derived from players that are of a BAME origin with Jeremy Guscott’s drop goal in 1997 and Jason Robinson’s searing pace against the Wallabies in the first test in 2001 being two great moments to note.

The 2021 tour will see the Lions face up against a Springboks side led by their inspirational World-Cup winning captain Siya Kolisi.  

And although the captaincy of the Lions went to Wales’s Alun Wyn Jones, and Conor Murray after Jones was injured, many thought that England’s Maro Itoje was primed to be the first black captain of the Lions.

Monye feels that when teams tour South Africa there is an element of symbolism that is attached to it.

“Whenever you play South Africa in South Africa there is some element of symbolism. I remember when England went down there in 2018 and Siya Kolisi was the first black South African captain and England stormed off to this crazy lead. As an English fan, I was thinking: “I hope England win, but I hope this isn’t a bad day for Siya [Kolisi].” South Africa would go on to win the test series 2-1, marking the arrival of Kolisi as captain.

The Accessibility that Lions have

In 1999, rugby fans all over the world were treated to an excellent piece of filmmaking when the documentary ‘Living with the Lions’ was released based around the 1997 Lions tour.

The documentary, directed by Duncan Humphreys and Fred Rees, allowed fans an up close and personal take on a Lions tour but with more emphasis on the backroom staff.

Embed from Getty Images

Since that documentary was produced, The Lions have allowed camera crews to follow their journey as they take on the might of the southern hemisphere. 

12 years on from that tour to South Africa, another documentary was produced titled ‘Living with the Pride.’ Once again it gave fans a chance to look at the behind the scenes access of how a Lions tour operates and the decisions that are made which can make or break a Lions tour.

Asked about the amount of off limits footage in the documentary Monye said: “you’re given free rein. You’re probably more worried about the stuff they might put in rather than other stuff, because there’s no point of being all access areas, if it doesn’t feel like all access areas. So yeah, you get proper buy in from everyone.

“In fact, I think a lot guys enjoyed it. I enjoyed it, it was brand new it was exciting, I didn’t know what the finished product would look like”

Speaking of people’s reaction into producing a documentary like this, Monye said:  “I think people genuinely really like it for lots of different reasons because we understand how important it is for fans to actually get to know you and the impact it can have. I just wish our sport was more open to that, but in saying that, as a responsibility of the fan, and the more engaged players are with fans, the more open and exposing we find ourselves, the more easy it is to get at people.”

The ‘Living with the Lions’ documentary focused on the tour that was the first in the professional era. Professionalism may have turned rugby players into huge stars overnight but with a documentary made on every Lions tour since then, it shows the access that fans can have to the players and the processes that bond the team.

On professionalism within the Lions, Monye feels that rugby does a good job of balancing two spheres: “Rugby does a really good job of straddling two spheres. The amateur era and its values and trying to be professional and it’s kind of still in its embryonic form in terms of professionalism entering its 26th year and the lions brings the very best of both of the amateur ethos and era as well as the professional one.

“I wonder how much of the amateur era ethos has been eroded in the last two tours. It was very much a part of the tour that I was on, but I feel like every single year that rugby becomes professional we do lose that bit of our amateurism.”

What it means to be a Lion and the future of the concept

Monye may have been on only one Lions tour in his career but looks back on it with pride.

“To be a lion is really special. First of all, it’s the most exclusive Rugby Club in the world, it is a touring team like no other, and some of the people that have put the jersey on before you are true legends of the game.

“I had every emotion you can have in a rugby career in those seven weeks.”

The Lions started their preparations for the 2021 tour with a 28-10 win over Japan at Murrayfield and Monye can foresee a tour happening there. 

“You’ll have traditionalists saying aw no we only ever tour the three teams, and you know for every year we lose some of the amateur era we’ve got to then be fully focussed on being a professional model. Japan’s huge, Japan is massive. You know when you’ve got nearly 50 million people watching rugby world cup matches, it’s hard to ignore. You can’t ignore the Yen.”

However, Monye is strongly of the opinion that before the Lions head to new territories, he would like to see a Women’s team take shape which currently is in the process of happening after Royal London decided to fund a feasibility study with a view of creating a women’s team.

Playing for the Lions has meant so much to Monye. Even though he featured on one tour, the memories are always there. Forever.