It’s been compared to Team GB and the Ryder Cup, but the British & Irish Lions can be called unique not only in rugby but in the world of sport. They tour every 4 years. A tour will visit one country and won’t tour that country for another 12 years. 4 countries with rugby rich individual identities are brought together to form a strong united front. Selection for the Lions squad is held as the highest accolade in northern hemisphere rugby.
A Lions series consists of matches against domestic sides in either Australia, New Zealand or South Africa followed by a 3-match series against the respective international sides. Historically, Lions test matches have included the greatest players to have played the game – Willie John McBride (Ireland), Gareth Edwards (Wales), Dan Carter (New Zealand) and David Campese (Australia). With great players, come great moments as former Lions player Tom Shanklin recalls his favourite memories of the Lions:
“I grew up remembering the 1997 tour to South Africa, not just for Jeremy Guscott’s drop goal and Scott Gibbs run into Os Du Randt but for me it was special because of how the players bonded off the field. For me they just looked like they were having great fun, singing songs, constantly laughing and joking, you could sense the team bonded well.”
12 years later, the Lions toured South Africa again and 111 capped Springbok and series captain John Smit remembers the second test match vividly:
“The second test was probably the biggest contest or test match I have ever played in, it was just a colossal ding dong from one side to another. It was a crazy test and one you will just never forget.”
Another unique element of a Lions tour is the recruitment of the touring squad. With rugby being hugely popular in all four home nations fans willingly voice their opinions on squad selection and create a hotly contested debate. The topic of discussion lasts for months with the climax being a live TV announcement of the final squad. However, once the squad is selected the really hard work begins. Bringing together professionals for four different home nations, with different cultures and rugby styles is no mean feat. To get this right the 2017 Lions touring squad will need to learn from the mistakes of previous tours. Shanklin believes uniting the squad is the most important aspect of the tour. He said:
“The management have to avoid team separation and ensure unity amongst the team. There will be a natural divide, but everyone must come together whether it’s getting on a coach to training or matches, and keeping players interested in fighting for positions in the big matches. Gatland will also want to maintain a work life balance and will be keen to immerse players within the New Zealand culture.”
The element of uniting the squad was echoed by TV Rugby pundit and former England rugby player David Flatman. A Lions tour is like no other and therefore throws a few new challenges for the team management.
“Aside from winning, if given some real thought, maintaining a work life balance should be relatively easy. Normal protocols in professional preparation should be forgotten in a way on a trip like this. Naturally you’ll have more than one bus to training sessions, therefore I would argue for those short journeys you should put people on those buses alphabetically and not in terms of selection. On the day before a match, match day and day after the match, the squad will naturally split because you’re doing different things physically. So for every other day you’ve got to make sure that the non-test players that week are included. It’s pretty easy to do, but if it’s not thought about then it can go badly wrong.”
Shanklin also compared off the field activities to being as important as the work put into training on a 8 week Lions tour due to the contribution it has on team bonding.
“you need the likes of Liam Williams, James Haskell and Joe Marler to be characters and break those barriers and bring the squad together, those are the type of characters you want around. Team bonding off the field will be hidden to the public eye, however it will have a significant contribution to the success the Lions will have on the field during the tour.”
The British & Irish Lions face New Zealand in the first of three test matches on Saturday 24th June. For further insight into the 2017 Lions tour read blogs from our other rugby legends here.