There really is nothing quite like the British and Irish Lions – and the iconic team returns this year! The Home Nations are coming together, to put forward their top players for an incredibly exciting summer of rugby. Head coach Warren Gatland took his team to Murrayfield Stadium for the tour’s curtain raiser against Japan last weekend, before heading off for six spell-binding weeks, consisting of eight matches against reigning world champions, The Springboks, in their South Africa tour.
In light of their ferocious summer ahead, here’s an insight into the Lions, its history and all you need to know ahead of the 37th tour.
The ‘Good to Knows’
The British and Irish Lions is a rugby union team, made up of players from the Home Nations – England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Since 1989, the tours have been held every four years, rotating between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in said order. It may come as a surprise to some that the team is a Test side; whilst it is most likely that the chosen players are those who have already played for their national team, eligible uncapped players can be selected too. The most recent Test was, of course, in New Zealand, however, was drawn 1-1 with a third match drawn. Gatland and his side are certainly keen to travel to South Africa and mark their territory, with a victory this year.
Legend of the Lions
The team’s first tour of the Southern Hemisphere took place in 1888, when a 22-man squad visited Australia and New Zealand, with an English-dominant side. After a 46-day voyage, the party skippered by Robert Seddon arrived for a mega 249-day tour of Australia and New Zealand. The touring tradition had begun! The 1888 team was quite successful too; the Lions won 27 out of the 35 games played, drawing seven and losing only two. As they say, good things certainly come to those who wait!
Three years later, the British tourists headed south of the equator again, only this time, were the first to be officially sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union. The first Test Series had been born, and it was a real success as the game’s governors had fully embraced the ‘overseas’ Tour concept.
However, it wasn’t until the 1910 South Africa tour that the concept gained major support of authorities and was representative of four Home Unions. It had taken 22 years since the first British side had set sail for the southern hemisphere, yet the quartered crest of the four home unions made its first appearance on the Lions’ blue jerseys. Despite a 2-1 loss on that tour, the Lions’ follow-up tour of Argentina boasted a 1-0 redemption – a victory that would stand for fourteen years. The Lions only toured Argentina three times in the pre-war era, however sealed comfortable victories in all of them.
Despite a great deal of interruption during the war era, the Lions re-established their spirit and rhythm soon after. In fact, it is said that the 1971 tour was the Lions’ greatest ever. A huge pool of talent, innovative thinking and continuously producing outstanding performances meant that this Lions team had triumphed against the All Blacks after nearly 75 years. They remain, to date, the only side to ever do so. Coach Carwyn James had so much talent at his disposal, including Mervyn Davies, Gerald Davies and Gareth Edwards…but it was superstar Barry John that dominated the entire tour. His range of kicks and stellar moves meant that he merely glided through the walls of the All Blacks defence. His astonishing 188 points remains a Lions tour record – a true Lions legend!
The high expectations that the 1971 tour provided were continuously met and surpassed in the following years. Let’s not forget the ‘Invincibles’ in 1974, who were undefeated in the whole tour. Or the 1997 tour of South Africa, whereby the Lions triumphed 2-1, in one of their greatest tactical successes after nearly a century of trying to beat the Springboks. Don’t forget the emphatic 2-1 victory over Australia in 2013, whereby the dominance of the Lions’ forwards consistently kept that scoreboard ticking. It has certainly been one hell of a ride for the British and Irish Lions!
Gatland has great experience in Lions squad selections; with the 2021 tour being his third as head coach, and fourth overall, fans are confident in his choices. With big talent such as Jonathan Davies, Manu Tuilagi and Johnny Sexton left out of the squad, perhaps this indicates the squad’s exceptional strength. Here is the named 37-man British and Irish Lions team selected to tour South Africa:
There are certainly some more unexpected names appearing in this line-up, including England outcast Sam Simmonds and the big shock in the backline, Ireland’s centre Bundee Aki. This goes to show…it is always possible for the bigger names to be left out to make room for some surprise selections!
So what does that mean for Eddie Jones’ team that is set to play the USA and Canada in this July’s Summer Series? Well, the Summer Series squad includes 23 uncapped players including Alex Dombrandt, Jack Kenningham, Ben Curry and Marcus Smith. This is a fantastic opportunity for all uncapped players to leave their mark and make their England debut’s ones to remember. Find out more about the Summer Series here.
So here we are - six uniforms, 37 Test series, 123 Test matches, and 131 years since the Lions’ 1888 debut. This team is certainly built on a rich history and boasts ample patriotism regarding the Home Nations. 2021’s Test series against South Africa will be Lions-Springboks series number 13; despite playing a total of 46 matches against South Africa, the Lions have only managed a total of 17 wins, with 23 losses and 6 draws…will this Test provide for a collection of victories for The Lions? Furthermore, will this be Test win number 18 against The Springboks?