12.00, 19th April. Sion Park.
The British & Irish Lions Tour Manager John Spencer will reveal the names of the players selected for the tour to New Zealand. The recruitment of the Lions squad has been a hot topic amongst rugby supporters over the last 18 months, fuelled by the recent success of England, the improving performances of Scotland and the Irish victory against the All Blacks at Soldier Field, Chicago – there is a sense of optimism and excitement growing in the rugby community.
According to Shane Horgan, who toured with the Lions in 2005 in New Zealand, the quadrennial recurrence of the Lions means that “there’s something quite scarce and precious about the tours” and that “the Lions fixtures always stood out to me, because of the fact it came around every 4 years”. From a fan perspective, it’s another 6-week extravaganza of rugby, but from a players’ perspective Horgan describes being recruited as a Lion as “really special”.
“One of the best memories I have in rugby was the day I found out I had been chosen to go on tour, in particular because my Dad was from NZ and he would tell me about the times he would watch the Lions when they toured NZ. He spoke about Tony O’Reilly touring with the Lions and so had that in the background and was the prism I viewed the Lions through. So to be picked and have the opportunity to go down there and contribute was fantastic - apart from the results, I had a brilliant time!”
Whether a player or a supporter, the British & Irish Lions can leave a lasting memory. Winning on tour however, not only creates great memories but can also create history, particularly against the number one team in the world and current World Champions. BBC Sport pundit Jonathan Davies, speaking at a recent Robert Walters event, believes that the All Blacks players and the Lions squad will feel the pressure, due to the nature of the tour and sport in the country:
‘’If you go there, it’s the national game. You cannot get away from it, hotels, schools, restaurants and bars. It’s living in a gold fish bowl. It will be a challenge to keep everyone happy to be in such a massive rugby environment. When I played there it was humbler than it is now. On the field, it’s unbelievable, they have been even better than they were. Kieran Read has stepped up and improved their game. They will feel the pressure; I think this is the best rugby team the Lions have had since 1971 when they won the series in New Zealand. It is because of the strength and depth of the squad all round. The forwards and the choice they have, they won’t be such underdogs as people think’’.
The Lions are renowned for their strong travelling support, within city centres, bars, fanzones and within the stadiums, the ‘sea of red’ follows the team bus wherever it goes – an estimated 25,000 will travel. Horgan said that the “supporters invest more in tours because of the irregularity of the franchise” and this is why the Lions are notorious for their fans. Former South African and World Cup winning captain John Smit has experienced facing the Lions during 2 tours in South Africa (1986 and 1997), and describes the Lions supporters as being “extraordinary” and then continued:
“It was the only team in my career I have played at home and having felt we were playing away. It adds a huge amount to what already the Lions bring on the field”.
The selection process is a daunting thought if you’re Warren Gatland, trying to select that first 15 with the best of the Home Nations to choose from. However for a spectator and fan from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales there will be countless discussions and disagreements trying to put 15 names down on a pub napkin. Robert Walters, who is an Official Sponsor of the British & Irish Lions, are looking forward to watching the selection process for the tour to New Zealand unfold!