Lions History

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.

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The Ultimate Try

Over the years, the game of rugby has seen many fantastic tries. From Andy Hancock’s 85 yard dash to snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat, to Philippe Saint-Andre’s own piece of Twickenham magic in 1991 voted Twickenham’s try of the century, and of course via ‘that try’ scored by Gareth Edwards in the opening minutes of the 1973 New Zealand-Barbarians match, we don’t even have to delve into the reams of amazing tries at club level to experience a vast cavalcade of sporting excellence and excitement when it comes to crossing the whitewash. And this has got me thinking; what is the recipe for the perfect try? The ideal, the pinnacle, the best, most exciting and most exquisite possible way to to touch down for five points?

Well, it seems logical to start at the beginning, the try’s inception. To me, a try should start from humble beginnings, a state where the crowd are not excited, and then build to a fantastic crescendo of joy and amazement; so our start point should be humble as well. The job of our first play is to prick the crowd’s attention, to give us the first sniff of something to happen, to offer potential to a situation where, apparently, nothing is on. Surprisingly few situations on a rugby field can offer such innocuous beginnings, but one slightly unusual example was to be found in the buildup to Chris Ashton’s famous try against Australia at Twickenham two years ago; Australia were on the offensive, but England won a turnover ruck. The pressure eased off; now, surely, England would kick it safe. A brief moment of innocuousness, before Ben Youngs spotted a gap.

But the classic in this situation, and the spawn of many a great try, is the moment of receiving a long kick. Here, again, we expect a responding kick, and thus have our period of disinterest before the step and run that begins our try. It was such a reception from Phil Bennett, along with two lovely sidesteps, that precipitated Gareth Edwards’ 1973 try, and I think this may prove the ideal starting point for my try.

Now, to the midsection of this try, which should be fast and fluid. Defender after defender should come and be beaten; and although many a good try has been scored with a ruck halfway through it, the best are uninterrupted start to finish as we build and build both tension and excitement. Here, the choice to begin by receiving a kick plays in our favour, since this naturally produces multiple staggered waves of defenders to beat one at a time as we advance up the pitch. Another key feature for success during this period is variety, for this is when a team shows off its full breadth of skill; possibly the only flaw with the 1973 special is that all defenders are beaten by simple passing. By contrast, Saint-Andre’s try featured everything from slick passing through individual speed and skilful running, capped by a lovely chip to finish things off; it is vitally important that a kick is not utilised too early, where it may slow the try’s pacing. A bit of skill during the kick collection itself helps too, adding a touch of difficulty and class to the move whilst also giving a moment of will he/won’t he tension to really crank it up; every little helps in the search for perfection. A good example of a properly good kick collection occurred in the Super 15 recently, with a sublime one handed pickup on the bounce for Julian Savea as he ran in for the 5 points. For my try, I think we’ll have a bit of everything; a sneaky sidestep or two, some pace to beat a defender on the wing, a bit of outrageous ambition (through-the-legs pass would work well, I think), some silky hands and a nice kick to finish things off; a crossfield would work nicely, I feel.

And the finish, the finish- a crucial and yet under-considered element to any great try. For a try to feel truly special, to reach it’s crowning crescendo, the eventual try scorer must have a good run-in to finish the job. It needn’t be especially long, but prior to the touchdown all the great tries have that moment where everybody knows that the score is about to come- the moment of release that means, when the touchdown does eventually come, our emotions are ones of joy at the moment rather than relief that he’s got it down. However, such an ending does not follow naturally from a crossfield kick, as I have chosen to include in my try, so there will need to be one finishing touch to allow a run in.

Well, we have all the ingredients ready, now to face the final product. So everyone reading this, I invite you to sit back, fill your mind with a stadium and a team, and let Cliff Morgan’s dulcet tones fill your ears with my own little theoretical contribution to the pantheon of rugby greatness:

(I have chosen for my try to be scored in the 2003 World Cup final for England against Australia, or at the least using the teams that finished that match because… well why the hell not?)

“And Robinson collects the kick, deep in his 22… Roff with the chase… Oh, and the step from Robinson, straight past Roff and off he goes… Steps inside, around Smith, this is great stuff from Robinson… and the tackle comes in from Waugh- but a cracking offload and Greenwood’s away up the wing! Greenwood, to Back, flick to Catt… Catt’s over the halfway line, but running into traffic… the pop to Dallaglio, and *oof*! What a hit there, straight through Harrison! Nice pop, back to Greenwood, it’s Greenwood on Larkham… the long pass, out to Cohen on the left… Cohen going for the ball, under pressure from Flatley- and oh, that’s fantastic, through the legs, to Wilkinson! Wilkinson over the 22, coming inside, can he get round Rogers? Wilkinson the golden boy… Oh, the kick! Wilkinson, with the crossfield kick to Lewsey! It’s Lewsey on Tuqiri, in the far corner, Lewsey jumps… Lewsey takes, Lewsey passes to Robinson! What a score!- Lewsey with the midair flick, inside to Robinson, and it’s Robinson over for the try! Robinson started the move, and now he has finished with quite the most remarkable try! What a fantastic score…”

OK, er, sorry about that, I’ll try to be less self-indulgent next time.