The year 1888 was a time of Queen Victoria, Jack the Ripper and expansion in the British Empire. Rugby was growing and starting to take on a familiar form with the first home nations’ championship played in 1883. But five years on from then, it was three cricketers who gave birth to a tradition that, 133 years later, still represents the pinnacle of professional rugby. Alfred Shaw, Arthur Shrewsbury and James Lillywhite sent a travelling party of 22 on a 46-day voyage to Australia and New Zealand for the inaugural British & Irish Lions tour.
That first tour began with a victory for the Lions in April, a match described by the local press as the “fastest and hardest fought game ever seen in Otago”. It was a historic day and kicked off a tour that would last 249 days and span 35 matches. This kind of gruelling schedule is unmatched elsewhere in the sport and, as a point of comparison, the World Cup insists on only seven matches from its finalists.
Although the sheer scale of that first tour hasn’t been repeated since, the reputation that Lions players earn is in part owing to their ability to rise to the immense demands of life as a travelling player. Pulling on a Lions jersey has always meant spending prolonged periods away from home and repeatedly competing in the toughest Test matches that the sport has to offer. As late as 1977, the Lions played 27 matches across five months in Fiji and New Zealand.
The tradition of the tour has remained constant. Excluding hiatuses surrounding the two World Wars, the Lions have ventured to the territories of their rivals in the southern hemisphere with regularity since the team’s inception. Tours in the 1960s and 1970s took place around every three years, giving legends like Andy Irvine, Bob Hiller and Phil Bennett the opportunity to cement their positions on the record table of the Lions’ leading point scorers.
But as the responsibilities of international players increased after the dawning of the professional era, Lions tours have taken on a more stable format. Since 1995, an average of 11 matches have taken place on each tour, with the legacy of the series defined by the matches played between the Lions and their host nation. Whether it be the Springboks, the Wallabies or the All Blacks, the Tests that take place are perhaps the most fiercely contested meetings in world rugby.
Of the three southern-hemisphere titans, Australia is the only nation where the Lions have managed a better head-to-head record over their hosts. The triumphant 2013 tour of Australia was emphatic and is marked by the third Test in which Warren Gatland’s team racked up a record points tally. The same match saw Welshman Leigh Halfpenny secure his place in Lions history by ratcheting up his points haul to 49 points over the 10 matches to beat Neil Jenkins’ record for the most points scored in a single tour.
With a record of 29 defeats from 38 Tests played against New Zealand, the All Blacks continue to offer the most robust opposition to the Lions. The tied series of 2017 was a phenomenal achievement considering that the Lions have only won six Tests in total against New Zealand. The fact that the average points scored by Lions in meetings with New Zealand remains in single figures shows just how tough it is to tour the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The story in South Africa, though, has been more of a level playing field. This year, the Lions face the Springboks as world champions in their own backyard. But in the first post-apartheid series of 1997, the Lions arrived with a similar challenge. Tasked with overcoming the 1995 world champions over three Tests, the Lions won the series 2-1 and returned victorious, forging Lions legends such as Martin Johnson, Scott Gibbs and Jeremy Guscott. This series, led for a third time by Sir Ian McGeechan, was the first in the professional era and is considered as one of the Lions’ greatest tactical successes.
But in 2009, the roles were reversed and the Lions were defeated 2-1 by the Springboks. Led again by McGeechan, three tightly fought Tests, with Morne Steyn’s late penalty in the second Test proving the difference between the sides, leave that touring party talked up as one of the best Lions squads to lose a series.
For the Lions, victories live long in the memory and defeats remain sore for decades. This year’s tour will be the first time since 2009 that the Lions have visited South Africa and they won’t need reminding of the significance of an opportunity to write more pages in the history books of this famous team.
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