A History Of The Lions

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With the tour kicking off this weekend, all rugby talk for the summer now shifts to the Lions. One of the recurring themes when this occasion arises is that of the pride and privilege that goes with wearing the red jersey, but what does it all mean? Ahead of this Saturday’s game against the Baa Baas let’s have a look back on some of the classic tours, and ask that constant question; is there a place for the Lions in the professional era?

The origins of the Lions date back to a time when the Haka looked like Riverdance on prozac and World Cups were nearly a hundred years away. The idea was for a “best of” from the northern Hemisphere to tackle the big guns from the southern Hemisphere and for the most part they fell short. It was in the fifties, post World War Two, when the Lions became the beast it is today. What changed was that the touring side began to take things seriously. The three tours of the decade comprised of wins losses and draws but there was far more serious intent shown by the visitors. They also preceeded the first tour of a man who would go on to epitomise what the Lions are all about, Willie John McBride.

There’s no doubt that McBride is an absolute hero of Irish rugby, an idol for all who have worn the jersey with him and since and particularly he is a role model for the pack, epitomising the dogged no holds barred approach that wins games. 1971 was the year he truly carved his legendary status though, coupled with 1974 cementing it forever. And it wasn’t in green, it was in red. Willie John was already a veteran of three tours when he took off with the squad for New Zealand in 71, and he went there with an “over the hill” attitude aimed his direction. He debunked this by starting all four tests against the All Blacks in what still stands as the only successful series the Lions have ever had over them, winning out 3-1. If that series proved the doubters wrong, what came next in 74 made them regret ever even thinking such thoughts.

The 74 tour and it’s white wash of the Springboks (controversial final game included) still stands as one of the greatest tours of all time. Willie John was captain, Ireland contributed nearly a player in every position on the pitch, and the team just annihilated oppositions. They ploughed through 22 games unbeaten and are still regarded as the model for all tours since. But it was the infamous “99 call”, wherein it was decided that the Lions would launch an attack on the entire South African team before the notoriously aggressive South African players got a dig in, that solidified this team in legend. Violence between players cannot be condoned in rugby, never, but the sentiment behind this act completely sums up the Lions. Never back down. The team that has now embarked on their trip to Australia won’t be punching their opposite numbers, hopefully, but they will play with a ferocity that many if the Australian players will not have experienced before. For this they can thank Willie John.

Since the seventies there has been ups and down for the Lions, series wins in Australia and South Africa the only good news whilst the All Blacks threw then around like rag dolls four times since 74. Recent tours have proven controversial affairs too with the spear tackle on O’Driscoll and citings and harsh contests a key feature of the last tour to South Africa. But more and more in the professional era the question has arisen; is it time to retire the Lions? After the last tour the Irish players in particular, having contributed 14 players initially, found themselves arriving home battered and bruised and some argue that the tour extended their season that much that it was near late 2010 when they finally had enough time to recover and get back the form and fitness they had. Because of the sparse nature of tours, opponents tend to throw the kitchen sink at the Lions and the hits are certainly harder. But this argument is more heavily based on the season structure needing change if we’re going down that route. Another argument calls for the Lions to face an invitational team from the Southern Hemisphere sides and this one could only happen with again, more changes to tour and season structures.

As it stands the Lions isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon with this tour shaping up to be one of the biggest yet. Like other areas if the sport, such as the Six Nations, there’s definitely areas that need adjusting and they will likely come naturally as the professional game evolves. For now, if there’s any chance of another tour like that mythical one of 74, why not leave it off as it is and see what new magic it can conjure up too.

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