The History of the British & Irish Lions


Opponents one minute, team-mates the next; the British & Irish Lions squad is unique in that it brings together the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales once every four years.

United under the same badge and philosophy, the Lions have become part of rugby folklore since the first tour in 1888. Selection is the pinnacle of any eligible player’s career and an endorsement that you are amongst the very best in your position.

“To tour with the Lions is the supreme prize. To be one of the best 30 players in the four countries and, hopefully, to be one of the best 15 and playing in the test team, is still the ultimate challenge,” said Willie John McBride, the Lions’ most-capped player.

With the Lions also comes huge support. Thousands of fans empty their life-savings for the chance to travel the world and see the Lions in action on tours to New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.

Next year’s tour to face the newly-crowned world champion Springboks will be the briefest yet, encompassing just eight matches and three tests over 35 days, from 3 July to 7 August.

But such is the buzz and bonhomie that accompanies the Lions wherever they go, you’d struggle to find any supporters returning home feeling short-changed no matter the series result.

HOW DID THE CONCEPT OF THE LIONS COME ABOUT?

From an unlikely source. It was three former cricket captains turned entrepreneurs who hatched the plan to take a representative rugby team overseas, having undertaken similar ventures involving bat and ball. The men concerned were Alfred Shaw, who bowled the first ball in test cricket, Arthur Shrewsbury and James Lilywhite. An approach was made to the Rugby Football Union (RFU) to officially sanction the tour, but they declined on the grounds that the players would receive payment to tour, long before the game went professional. Despite the setback, the tour went ahead, setting in motion 132 years of history.

WHERE WAS THE FIRST TOUR IN 1888?

The historic first Lions clash took place in Otago in New Zealand, which the tourists won 8-3, with 10,000 spectators watching the encounter. There were a further 18 games in New Zealand and 16 in Australia. 19 Victorian Rules (later known as Aussie Rules) matches were also arranged to help pay for the trip.

WERE THEY AWAY LONG?

Just a bit! The 22 players (nine backs and 13 forwards) spent the best part of two-thirds of a year overseas (249 days), and that was after making the 46-day, 16,000-mile voyage by sea. Having left Tilbury Docks on 8 March, the team set sail for Dunedin via Plymouth, Tenerife, the Cape of Good Hope, and a brief stopover in Hobart in Tasmania, before arriving on 23 April.

DID THE FIRST SQUAD INVOLVE ALL FOUR NATIONS?

The Robert Seddon-captained squad was made up predominantly of Englishman. The Scots boasted the next largest contingent with four in brothers Robert and William Burnet, Alex Laing and Dr John Smith (initially as a referee). Cambridge University student William Thomas represented Wales and there was an Irishman in Belfast-born Arthur Paul.

WAS IT A SUCCESS?

Yes, but not just in the results. Mutual respect between opposing teams was a key feature of the tour and arguably its biggest success story. Of the 35 matches played, the Lions only came out on the wrong side of the scoreline twice. The tour was, however, overshadowed by a tragic boating accident on the Hunter River which led to the death of England international Seddon.

HOW SUCCESSFUL HAVE THE LIONS BEEN OVERALL?

Of the 651 games played overall, the Lions have won 488 (a 75 per cent success rate) and there have been 32 draws and 131 losses. Discounting seven tests against Argentina, of which six were wins and the other a draw, the Lions have enjoyed by far and away the most success against Australia with a win percentage of 74 per cent. This is compared to 37 per cent against South Africa and just 16 per cent against the All Blacks.

WAS THERE A GROUND-BREAKING TOUR?

The 1971 series in New Zealand stands apart from all others as it was the first and only time the tourists have won a series in New Zealand. Coached and captained by two Welshmen, Carwyn James and John Dawes, the Lions won the four-match series 2-1, with Barry John cementing his reputation as ’the King’ by scoring a tour record 188 points. The Lions of 2017 came the closest yet to emulate the class of ‘71, drawing with the All Blacks after Owen Farrell kicked a fifth penalty with three minutes to go to level the decisive match – and the series.

Up until 1971, the Lions had travelled in hope rather than expectation, with a miserable record of just nine wins from 29 matches against the southern hemisphere’s ‘big three’ since the end of World War Two.

WHO WERE THE INVINCIBLES?

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Once they had tasted success, the Lions were hungry for more. Keeping the core of the squad intact from 1971, three years later in South Africa they registered 21 straight wins before a draw in their final game – the fourth and final test of a four-match series – prevented a clean sweep.

WHEN WAS THE FAMOUS ‘99’ CALL PUT INTO USE?

At the ‘Battle of Boet Erasmus Stadium’, in Port Elizabeth, one of the most violent matches in rugby history took place when players from both sides – including ones who’d normally shy away from a fist fight – were involved in a mass brawl.

In readiness for what the Lions management saw as an over-physical approach from the Springboks, a ‘99’ call of retaliation had been devised. It was a ‘one-in, all-in’ policy, which meant that the Lions players were expected to bail out any team-mate who got in trouble by matching violence with violence. It was used a couple of times on tour, but most famously during that third test.

ICONIC MOMENTS

A century had passed between test series exclusively played against Australia when the Lions went Down Under in 1989. An Aussie side destined to be world champions two years later gave the Lions as good as they got but a mistake from David Campese by his own try line handed Ieuan Evans an opportunistic score that settled the series 2-1. Australia gained revenge 12 years later for their one and only series victory to date.

Jerry Guscott’s third international drop goal in Durban may not have been a thing of beauty but it put the Lions into an unassailable 2-0 lead in the 1997 series against South Africa. Matt Dawson’s audacious dummy and solo try was another unforgettable moment from a tour that became the stuff of legend thanks to the behind the scenes documentary, Living with the Lions.

The boot was on the other foot, however, in 2009 in an equally captivating series against the Springboks that was decided by Morne Steyn’s monster, 55-metre penalty.

LIONS ROAR

Lions fans have always been vociferous in their support but this reached another level during the first test of the 2001 series in Brisbane – the one where Chris Latham got ‘burnt’ by the pace of Jason Robinson. Apart from seeing the back of Robinson’s heels, Latham’s overriding memory of the match is the noise generated by the red-clad army in the stands. “It was just amazing, and that’s coming from an Aussie. I think it really shocked Australian fans that you could be so noisy and passionate and get lost in the game itself for its purity as a contest,” said the Wallaby full-back.

MOST CELEBRATED PLAYER?

The Lions’ roll call of former players reads like a who’s who of rugby and narrowing the choice down to one man is incredibly tough. However, few would dispute that Ulsterman Willie John McBride has had more influence in a red jersey than any other player. Not only does the second-row hold the all-time test appearance record with 17 across five tours, he has the distinction of appearing in and captaining the side on their historic 22-match unbeaten tour to South Africa in 1974.

WHO IS KNOWN AS THE LION KING?

No Lions history is completed without a section devoted to the man known as ‘the Lion King’, Sir Ian McGeechan. The Scotsman’s association with the Lions spanned an incredible 35 years, from his involvement as a player in the first of his two tours in 1974 through to the last of five stints as a coach in 2009. McGeechan holds the enviable status of being the only person to have won a series as both a player and coach.

WHAT’S THE LIONS’ RECORD TEST WIN?

On a tour as long as the first one back in 1888, the Lions were unbeaten in eight matches on the Australian leg of the 1966 tour before getting a rude awakening in New Zealand where they lost the series 4-0.

At Lang Park in Brisbane, the rugby league ground, they recorded a 31-0 win which was, and still is, the Lions’ biggest winning margin in a test. It was also the Wallabies’ heaviest ever defeat in 67 years of international rugby. In the proverbial game of two halves, the Lions added to a solitary first-half penalty, scored in the first minute, with tries from Ken Jones, twice, Dewi Bebb, Noel Murphy and David Watkins. If ever there was a false dawn, that was it.

WHO HAS SCORED THE MOST TRIES?

Irish winger Tony O’Reilly scored 38 tries in as many games for the Lions; he also holds the Barbarians’ try-scoring record. A relative behemoth for his era at 1.88m tall and around 95kg, O’Reilly relished the freedom afforded to him by the Lions and set his record across the 1955 and 1959 tours.

WHO IS THE RECORD POINTS-SCORER?

Andy Irvine’s tally of 288 points will take some beating, especially now that tours as long as summer are a thing of the past. The rampaging Scotland full-back notched 281 points in a red jersey, 45 more than Welsh great Phil Bennett, including 25 from the five tries he managed in one match against King Country-Wanganui in New Zealand in 1977.

Story Courtesy/World Rugby 

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