Yes, it’s Lions time again and, with Film Fortnight over, I thought it was high time to start talking about the greatest adventure in modern rugby. I’ve already gone on three long semi-rants with regards to the squad selection (and yes, I was rather glad that Rory Best made it onto the tour in the end, even if he hasn’t been playing fantastically well) and was originally going to start off with a nice long analysis of the warmup games thus far. However, I then decided that there was no way I was going to be able to restrict that to anything less than fourteen thousand posts, especially given that the Lions’ penultimate game was played this morning, so I thought I’d just do a post about each test (yes, the awards ceremony’s coming back) and this; a potted history of the British and Irish Lions.
The Lions story begins in 1888, when a group of upper class Britons, (as most rugby players were at the time) decided to go for an extended tour around Australia and New Zealand. There was no national setup at the time in either country so the side played mainly provincial and university sides. The tour wasn’t especially serious, being little more than a very long, privately funded rugby-playing jolly. The next year, two significant events occured; the South African Rugby Union was founded, and a cricketing outfit went down to South Africa and slaughtered every side they came across. This positive attitude to not daring to come anywhere close to challenging the motherland among the locals was attractive to the English RFU, so a couple of years later in 1891 they revived the spirit of the ’88 tourists and sent the first official touring party down. In collaboration with the SRU, a selection of English and Scottish internationals/senior players, captained by Bill Maclagan, set off to South Africa for a nineteen-match tour. To say that they captured the spirit of ’88 can be confirmed by one tourist’s (Paul Clauss, for the record) description of the tour as ‘all champagne and travel’, and like the cricketers they swept all before them. That might be expected when the founders of a sport travel to a company that has only played it for two years, but what might not have been expected was the first match against Cape Town Clubs. In this game Carles ‘Hasie’ Versfeld ‘found an opening, put in a grand sprint and scored a try amidst tremendous cheering’. That this was the only point scored against them during the tour, and that they scored 224 themselves, mattered not; the Afrikaaner population loved the idea that they, despite all the odds, had put one over on the touring side. Hasie Versfeld became something of a national treasure (among the whites at least), and rugby became the white South African’s sport of choice. It’s no coincidence that South African rugby’s Pretoria home is named after Hasie’s brother, Loftus Versfeld. Just twelve years later, when the British came to tour again, they won the series outright for the first time (the score was 1-0, with two tests drawn), and wouldn’t lose another one for 73 years.
A few things had changed in those twelve years; the tour became more of an established thing, and the British Isles team did the rounds of both Australia & New Zealand and South Africa once apiece, and it was during this time that Irish representatives were asked to join the party. Thus was the format of a tour established; every four-ish years, a coach picked some players from all four countries (from 1910 they were selected by a committee of four nations), they headed off to either South Africa or New Zealand and played some rugby amidst general mucking around. As time went by, another fixture of these tours became losing; the Lions lost every single series between 1903 and 1955, and didn’t win one proper until 1971. Even provincial matches, against sides often shorn of star quality, were frequently lost. This wasn’t so much because the tourists weren’t good players, or even because of the issues concerning modern Lions tours of how fast a squad is able to gel or the touring schedule, but really thanks to amateurism.
In our modern rugby age of protein shakes and gym schedules it’s often easy to forget just how dedicated the ‘old farts’ who used to run the home unions were to the concept of amateurism (and not just because it made them a fair old slice of cash). These people didn’t think that ‘it’s not the winning, but the taking part that counts’ was for the losers on sports day- this was the core of their sporting philosophy. These were the days when players could be banned from ever attending a rugby match again just for accepting cash to play, and when the greatest shame imaginable was to be sent off. The score didn’t matter to the home unions in those day; a tour was really little more than a paid-for sporting holiday once every few years, and a Lions tour (as they were nicknamed from 1924 onwards) was no different. Down south, victory was more than just nice when it happened, but something to actively be sought. The southern hemisphere were the first unions to sanction the appointment of coaches (as late as the 1970s, the Scottish Rugby Union couldn’t bring themselves to create the job title of ‘coach’, instead going with ‘advisor to the captain’), and all in all had a more professional approach to the game- and it showed in the results. To be sure, there were several cases of it running close to the wire, but even the creme de la creme of northern hemisphere rugby could rarely manage more than one test win out of four. Of the four (and there were only four) tours the Lions didn’t lose throughout the 20th century, one was in the professional era (1997), one required all the guile of the great Cliff Morgan and all the total inability to kick of Jack van der Schyff just to salvage a draw (1955), and even the famous 1974 tour, in which the Lions didn’t lose a game, came about as a result of pitting the greatest players from Northern hemisphere rugby’s (read “mostly Wales'”) golden age against a South African outfit who were far from their country’s greatest side and whose selectors lost the plot so completely that they ended up playing an uncapped No. 8 (Gerrie Sonnekus) at scrum-half in the third test. Yes, the ’74 Lions may have been, as some put it, the greatest ever rugby side to set foot on a pitch, but they sure as hell could have had trickier opposition. To my mind, of all the amateur Lions tours only the 1971 tour, in which the Lions triumphed over the legendary Colin Meads’ formidable All Blacks outfit, can be dubbed a definite victory from the men north of the equator.
Those days of amateurism are long gone now. Players are professional and on big contracts whilst rugby itself is big business, and the Lions even more so (HSBC’s sponsorship deal for the 2013 tour is rumoured to be in the region of £7-8 million). Nowadays, the Lions face the problems of professional sport when trying to put one over on the southern hemisphere giants; those of forming a team from a collection of individuals in a shortened tour itinerary, injury worries and seemingly always having to play the most on-form of the three. But what I hope hasn’t changed are the things that make a Lions tour, or indeed any tour, so special; the adventure and the stories. Call me an old romantic, but one of the reasons I love rugby is the way its players still manage to enjoy themselves and mess around amidst all the chaos of a professional sporting life, that they can still go out for a drink and still be a bit stupid now and again. Long may it continue- especially on Lions tours.