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'I have to go on this trip' - What it means to be selected as a British & Irish Lion | Spirit of Rugby - Ep1

By Ian Cameron

In a new series of short films, RugbyPass shares unique stories from iconic British and Irish Lions tours to South Africa in proud partnership with The Famous Grouse, the Spirit of Rugby.

In episode one of Spirit of Rugby Jim Hamilton talks with John Bentley, Ian McGeechan, Jeremy Guscott, Matt Dawson, Rob Kearney and Rob Wainwright about their recollections of British and Irish Lions selection ahead of the tours of South Africa in ’97 and 2009 and what it meant to them.

“I get so emotional talking about it,” said Bentley, who toured in 1997. “You get four countries, like nothing else in the world, came together as one. They put all their differences to one side. The atmosphere and the build-up to games, just to be a player, to put yourself in the position to experience that camaraderie we generated, the belief. ”

“My wife said I couldn’t go. She said I couldn’t go, it’d be selfish. I had a rugby league contract to pursue. The contract that we signed was pretty ordinary, and I don’t like talking about money but it was a significant contract and I was a full-time rugby player.

“She said ‘You’ve got four months at Halifax. You need to honour that, not go on so bloody swan song tour. What if you get injured in your first game and break your leg? You have a young family.’

“I sat on it for two days and I turned to her and said ‘There are some things in life that are far greater than money. I have to go on this trip’. She said ‘fine, we’ll support you’.

“To me, it means everything about rugby. You have to be selfless, you have to give every single part of you, every secret, every bit of knowledge you have about rugby, you have to give it on that Lions tour.”

winning Lions 2021
Jeremy Guscott celebrates with coach Ian McGeechan after his drop goal gave the Lions an unassailable 2-0 series lead after the second Test match in South Africa in 1997 (Photo by David Rogers/Allsport/Getty Images)

Guscott recalled how he found out he was a Lion in 1997.

“The media started phoning up and saying congratulations and all that type of stuff and then the local newspaper, the Bath Evening Chronicle, wanted to do a photograph. I was a bricklayer at the time. And so they used their imagination. I was in the back garden and I had a wheelbarrow. [Headline] Jeremy Guscott makes the Lions tour.”

“I think being a British and Irish Lion was the highest honour that I ever achieved as a rugby player. It probably gave me, in fact it definitely gave me, the best rugby memories that I’ve got.

“I was on the training fields at Northampton and we had Geech as our club coach, who was obviously the Lions coach. We were touted to be going on the tour and this was the night before and we said ‘Come on Geech, just give us a hint’. And he was having none of it.

McGeechan Lions
Sir Ian McGeechan in 2009 /Getty Images

Dawson celebrated selection with fellow Lion Paul Grayson.

“I was staying at Paul Grayson’s house. He had a video cassette player and we watched the videos of the ’89 tour of Australia in disbelief that we were going to be wearing that red shirt.”

Lions guru Sir Ian McGeechan remembers calling Paul O’Connell to ask him to captain the 2009 tour of South Africa and found he couldn’t raise the giant Limerickman.

Lions South Africa joint video documentary
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“Well, I picked Paul O’Connell for the captain of the 2009 tour and then I rang Paul and I couldn’t get a reply, he wouldn’t reply. Apparently, he’d been bothered by an insurance man trying to sell him insurance from the UK, so when he saw a UK number he wouldn’t answer it. He thought I was an insurance man trying to sell him something.

“It is an environment that only occurs every fourth year and you’re playing opponents who respect you and respect the Lions.”

“I couldn’t remember but it happens that my wife was in the car with me. I think I did hear it on the radio because it’s a long list and it ends with the back row and if your name begins with W, I was possibly the last person announced.

“So I probably had lost hope by the time we got halfway through the back row, I think that’s how it happened. My wife says it is, that’s the way it happened.”

Scotland’s Tom Smith get ready with Keith Wood for a scrum during the successful 1997 Lions tour of South Africa (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Irish fullback Rob Kearney was one of the stars of the 2009 tour and holds his place in Lions history dear to his heart.

“It is amazing. It is something that can never be taken away from you and I think that is really important. You dream your whole life of doing something, you actually do it, that’s something you take to your grave with you.”

Tune in next week for another episode in The Spirit of Rugby series, in partnership with The Famous Grouse.


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