NEW YORK, NY – “This, is your Everest, boys!” So said legendary British and Irish Lions‘ forward coach Jim Telfer’s immortal words (clip below) prior to the first test of the 1997 South Africa tour remain powerful enough to send a shiver down the spine of any rugby fan. They serve as a reminder of the unique nature of the Lions; a team which comes together only every four years, made up of the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, to take on the southern hemisphere’s rugby powerhouse nations.
There is no event like a Lions tour in all of sport, and to be selected for the tour is the dream of every British and Irish rugby player from a young age. With coach Warren Gatland set to announce his squad on 19th April for this summer’s tour to his native New Zealand, it’s time to look ahead to what will be a scintillating five weeks of rugby.
Lions Aim for New Zealand Redemption.
Following the disastrous 2005 tour to New Zealand, where the Lions conceded 107 points in three tests to a rampant All Blacks side, there was much debate about whether the Lions concept was viable in the professional era. Bringing a group of players together for the first time and giving them only six weeks to prepare to face one of the world’s best teams, comprised of players playing together in an established system for years, is an enormous task. Concerns abounded that with domestic seasons becoming ever more demanding, Lions tours might descend into an embarrassment.
Thankfully, the narrow test series defeat to South Africa four years later, followed by victory in Australia in 2013, quieted the doubters and ensured that the Lions tradition will continue. However, this summer’s team will be seeking redemption against the All Blacks. 12 years ago coach Sir Clive Woodward led the Lions to New Zealand, where they were soundly beaten in all three tests, losing by an average margin of 22 points. The second test in Wellington, a 48-18 loss, emphasized the gulf in class between the two sides, as Dan Carter put on what will go down in history as one of the best international fly-half performances of all time.
In addition to the test match defeats, the Lions management team’s reaction to the controversial loss of tour captain Brian O’Driscoll to injury early in the first test, and rumours of friction between Woodward and Wales star Gavin Henson, gave the sense of a tour in disarray. Gatland and his players will be keen to quash those memories and present a sterner test on the pitch and more cohesive impression off it, even if history suggests their chances of test series victory are slim.
The Lions have toured New Zealand 11 times and won a test series only once… in 1971. This summer they will be facing the number-one ranked team in the world, who recently equaled the record for the number of consecutive test match wins (17). Moreover, they have current World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett pulling the strings at fly half. However, the Lions will draw optimism from Ireland’s sensational victory over the All Blacks in Chicago last November, which proved that direct, aggressive, attacking rugby could unsettle New Zealand. The 2-1 test series victory over Australia four years ago was the Lions’ first since winning in South Africa in 1997, and their first in Australia since 1989, proving that history doesn’t always have to dictate the future.
In Warren Gatland, the Lions have a native Kiwi as head coach; a man with in-depth, local knowledge of how the game is played in New Zealand and, while he has yet to experience success against the All Blacks as head coach of Wales, losing all of their ten encounters under his stewardship, with a more talented squad at his disposal this summer, his native knowledge and experience could be a difference maker. He is a veteran of the last two Lions tours, as an assistant in 2009 and as head coach of the victorious 2013 tour.
So, although the task facing the 2017 group is a sizeable one, the Lions have reasons to believe they can succeed. The Lions have won only 42% of test series since the first tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1888, emphasizing just how difficult it is to travel to the southern hemisphere as a new team and be successful. A Lions tour victory sits only just behind winning the World Cup, as far as career dreams are concerned for British and Irish players. With World Cup success proving elusive for these nations (England’s victory in 2003 remains the only time the tournament has been won by a northern hemisphere nation), the Lions represent the undisputed pinnacle of many a British and Irish player’s career. The effort required to win this summer will be Herculean, but again… this is Everest.
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