By Damian Hopley - @damianhopley
Q: How can you spend four years knocking lumps out of each other and then become part of an exclusive squad capable of competing against the World Champions in the space of six weeks?
Answers on a postcard please. The year is 1989 and, as an aspiring schoolboy rugby player, The British and Irish Lions have come across my radar. They are touring Australia and I am especially drawn to the likes of Ireland’s elegant centre Brendan Mullen who notches up four tries in the opening game against Western Australia. Having toured Down Under the year before with the victorious England U18 Schools team that boasted a few future England test players, including John Mallett, Adedayo Adebayo (so good they named him twice), yours truly and one Martin Osborne Johnson, I took great interest in the combined might of the four Home Unions and how they would fare in the sometime hostile surrounds of Australia.
What came to pass over the following six weeks was nothing short of astounding as the Lions turned around a 0-1 deficit to win the series 2-1 at the Sydney Football Stadium, sealing their legendary status in the pantheon of the game. No matter that it was my former school coach and mentor ‘Big Rog’ Uttley – himself a star of the ’74 Lions Series win in South Africa – who was on the management team along with several other legends in the making. The memories of that group come flooding back; the barnstorming ‘Iron’ Mike Teague, the player of the series; the scrap between Robert Jones and his half-back counterpart Nick Farr-Jones that set off the Battle of Ballymore and set the tone for the forthright tactics that unsettled the home team so much; the outrageous chip and gather from Jeremy Guscott to score a brilliant individual try in the second test and the formidable contributions of the Hastings brothers in defence and attack to name just a few. As every rugby fan of the time will tell you, the denouement of the series was the spectacular in-goal mix up between Greg Martin and David Campese that gifted Ieuan Evans the score and the historic away series victory that cemented the status of the Lions in the rugby fans’ minds. Take a look at the YouTube clip below, the Chris Handy commentary describing Campese’s ‘Micky Mouse’ rugby is worth the view alone. ‘G-O-L-D’ as the locals say in those parts. Indeed, in reading Michael Lynagh’s excellent autobiography, Blindsided, it transpired that the Lions victory and physical approach was a significant turning point and contributory factor in the Wallabies successful Rugby World Cup campaign two years later. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOCN4dkyvp4 Having then gone onto be involved in senior rugby playing for Wasps from late 1990, I was fortunate enough to play against and with a number of the ’93 Lions led by captain Gavin Hastings and manager Geoff Cooke, who toured rugby’s Holy Grail of New Zealand. It was another fantastic squad effort and the likes of Ben Clarke, Dean Richards, Brian Moore and Jason Leonard were amongst those who put in a colossal shift against the All Blacks. Were it not for a couple of questionable refereeing decisions in the first test, they could have returned with the most prized scalp in World Rugby. Plus ça change…
The 1997 Lions tour was the first of the professional era and one that I watched with a degree of envy and huge admiration. Having suffered a career-ending injury earlier that season, it would realistically have been my only opportunity to get on a Lions trip as a player. Unfortunately, fortunes ruled against me (as no doubt did my lack of talent I hear you cry), but to see my old team mates, Messrs Johnson, Leonard, Dallaglio, Dawson, Rodber, Beal and Hill join forces with the other players and pull off one of the most spectacular series victories in one of the toughest countries to tour was a thing of absolute beauty. Under the guidance of Fran Cotton, Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer, the Lions of ’97 lay the foundations of what has now become one of the most incredible sporting experiences in the world. Combining off-field fun with on-field success and generating the comradery as demonstrated throughout the ground breaking ‘Living with the Lions’ behind the scenes documentary, the future looked extremely bright.
This was highlighted by the remarkable travelling support the 2001 Lions generated in Australia. From the moment Martin Johnson went out for the coin toss with John Eales and reported back to the dressing room that the sea of red fans dwarfed the home support, it was always going to be a special day for the visitors. What followed was nothing short of jaw-dropping as the Lions romped home to a famous victory with Rob Henderson and Brian O’Driscoll having a field day in the midfield and Scotty Quinnell tearing the Wallaby defence apart. Bloody marvellous.
So overwhelmed were the ARU by the fervour, colour and noise generated by the Lions fans, they put out a rally cry for the Aussies to ‘Be Bold, wear Gold!’ – not quite Lord Kitchener, but you get the picture. Indeed, the ARU even covered the two empty stands at the Home Bush Olympic Stadium in gold foil to make their point. Every little helps I suppose. This was my first experience as a travelling supporter and the next two games were fantastic to watch live. Purely from a one-eyed standpoint as a fan, it took an errant elbow from Nathan Gray to Richard Hill’s head, a salmon-esque line out steal from Justin Harrison coupled with Daniel Herbert’s brace of tries in the final test to dash the prospect of back-to-back series wins in Australia, with the Lions coming up agonisingly short. The home team had scrapped magnificently to take the honours.
There are far better placed people than me to discuss 2005’s disastrous tour to New Zealand, suffice to say it probably helped the Lions Committee going forward to understand what doesn’t work with a tour of that magnitude. Enough said. On the plus side, to witness first-hand Dan Carter’s virtuoso performance when he scored 33 points in the second test was an absolute privilege. 2009’s tour to South Africa was the opportunity to right the wrongs of four years earlier and who better to lead that campaign that the soon-to-be-knighted Ian McGeechan (seven Lions tours under his belt – get well soon Geech) and the outstanding leader of the time, Paul O'Connell. Again, small margins cost the visitors dearly as they went down 2-0 to the powerful Springboks, the reigning World Champions, but pride was salvaged with a riveting third test victory that put the Lions shirt in a good place ahead of 2013’s visit to Australia.
When Warren Gatland was appointed the Lions Head Coach in 2013, I had every confidence that the breadth of his successful coaching career, from Ireland to Wasps and onto Wales via his beloved Waikato, not to mention the fact he went on the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa as part of the coaching team, made him uniquely qualified to lead a successful campaign to Australia. The Rugby Players’ Association have been the lead negotiators on the Lions player contracts and welfare provisions since 2001 and we have worked closely with British and Irish Lions Ltd to deliver a well organised service to the players and the team, ensuring the care and support being delivered to the players is world class, as befits this ‘best of the best’ environment. Worryingly, the fact that there hadn’t been a series victory since 1997 was starting to add considerable pressure to the commercial and administrative teams that put such a Herculean effort into making the Lions tours viable, looking after an ever-increasing band of partners and suppliers who provided such enormous support to ensure that tours of this nature can continue in the professional era. At a time when other stakeholders in the game were starting to question the worth and point of the Lions, the 2013 tour held a pivotal significance in determining the long-term future of the team. That the class of 2013 pulled off such a stunning victory in the third Test reinforced the Lions’ unique status in rugby as the biggest misnomer in modern sport. The fantastic celebrations with 007 et al only served to strengthen the position that the Lions must remain an ever-present force in the World Rugby going forward.
So, what is this article all about? A rambling one-eyed history lesson and self-indulgent reflection perhaps, but having just returned from the incredible atmosphere of Wellington and enjoyed one or two social beers with both the home and away fans in New Zealand, it is absolutely imperative to recognise how special these tours are and accordingly give the Lions the full support they deserve and merit. You could not have seen better interaction between two sets of fantastic rugby fans whose behaviour and bonhomie has been a fantastic tonic at a time when the world is going slightly crazy. The upshot for our game can be nothing other than positive in inspiring generations as Messrs Mullin, Guscott and Evans did for me all those years ago. As someone who has spent the last 18 years campaigning for players’ rights and complained about the fact that there is too much rugby for too few people, one thing we simply cannot afford to do is interfere with this most precious of world sporting teams. The World Rugby Conference in San Francisco in January of this year agreed that the Lions would reduce the number of tour games to 8 in total, but having seen the improvement made week in, week out on this tour, right up to Saturday’s historic defeat of the All Blacks, then surely this squad needs to be guaranteed a minimum preparation time together and certainly not have the farcical situation of arriving in NZ only three days before the first game. Whilst some will point fingers at professional clubs in an accusatory fashion and say (most unfairly) that they are looking to dismantle the Lions, this is absolute nonsense. As we all work towards agreeing a domestic and international season that delivers player welfare, optimum performance and results (in that order by the way), then surely it’s incumbent on the Home Unions, the professional leagues and SANZAR to provide a schedule that ensures the Test Series is played in a way that gives both teams the best possible chance to succeed. The planning for the 2021 and 2025 Lions Series should be beginning early in the cycle with agreements being made by all stakeholders based on feedback from this and other tours. This is not a rose-tinted, post-tour rally cry fuelled by Saturday’s result, but simply a call for common sense to prevail and to give the Lions the chance they and their adoring fans deserve. In the meantime, my best wishes go to Sam and the Lions squad, who have been brilliant ambassadors for Northern Hemisphere Rugby, John Spencer and Warren Gatland and his coaching team for another extraordinary match on Saturday at Eden Park. As that man of men Jim Telfer so rightly put it; “Many are called but few are chosen, this is your Everest boys. This is your Everest”. History beckons and millions of Lions fans around the world cannot wait. #LionsLionsLions