That lengthy absence added to the sense of anticipation surrounding the '97 tour but there was very little romantic feeling among the bookmakers who made the Lions massive underdogs. After all, the Springboks were the reigning World Champions and the Lions had won just a single series on South African soil in the whole of the 20th century.
As the first professional Lions tour, this particular adventure carried even greater significance, especially as critics were already beginning to suggest that the world's greatest touring team would soon become irrelevant now that amateur status was a thing of the past.
And once the Lions arrived in South Africa, South African Rugby Union boss Louis Luyt openly dismissed their chances of success - an attitude that was symptomatic of the general feeling among the South African public. As far as large parts of the South African rugby community were concerned, the Lions were as close to no hopers as you could care to imagine.
The 1997 Lions defied the odds to win in South Africa
Yet despite such sentiments and against all the odds, it was the Lions who were smiling at the end of the series. Sir Ian McGeechan's men shone in adversity, winning the first two Tests against to secure a sensational 2-1 series triumph.
It was a success that will live long in the memory, regardless of what has happened since, but the fact that the Lions have been beaten by all three southern hemisphere giants in the three tours that have followed has simply added to the significance of the achievement.
Ieuan Evans, Jerry Guscott, Scott Gibbs and Fran Cotton all played huge roles in that triumph and all four men point to similar themes when assessing the success of the tour.
For this outstanding quartet of Lions, team spirit, a professional approach and underdog status, combined with a healthy dose of hard work, all had a major impact on ensuring the '97 Lions wrote themselves into the history books.
Ieuan Evans - Lions Test wing and three-tour veteran
"Very few gave us a chance. As we flew off, the Springboks gave the very strong impression that they only had to turn up to win the series. Joel Stransky and Rudi Straueli, two English-based members of their 1995 World Cup team, were so impressed by the Lions that they backed South Africa to win 3-0.
"By then we were beginning to think that we were on the verge of doing something famous. Geech had been talking our chances up from the outset, and I could sense even before we had got round to playing a match that there was a collective strength about this Lions squad which had not been there in the last one in New Zealand four years before.
"No matter how great the individual disappointments, not once during the seven weeks travelling round South Africa did anyone let his personal dissatisfaction affect the common cause.
"Having such a competitive element throughout the team in almost every position helped hugely. Every one of the 35 players thought he was in with a chance of making the first Test and that helped us avoid falling into the traditional Lions trap of the party being split, almost immediately, into the Saturday team and the lesser midweek team.
"I had been on some far from happy tours in my time, but this was unquestionably the happiest I had ever known."
Ieuan Evans says the 1997 Lions tour was his best ever
Jeremy Guscott - Lions centre and the match winner in the second Test in Durban
"In '97, we were underdogs and Louis Luyt said as much when we arrived at the airport in Johannesburg - 'thanks for making up the numbers guys. We'll show you in and we'll show you out'.
"That was a big spur to us to go out there and prove Louis Luyt wrong.
"I remember we were at the first press conference and I was sat there listening to Luyt and I was thinking, 'you really haven't looked around and seen the quality of player that's in this squad'.
"I looked around the whole of our squad and I thought, 'I'm going to struggle to get in this Test team' and I think a lot of players thought like that."
Jerry Guscott kicked the winning drop goal in the second Test
Scott Gibbs - Lions centre who was named Man of the Series
"When that squad was announced in '97, I think there was an element that this squad was different, this management was different, and all those elements came together to create one playing entity.
"There was never anyone who felt alienated in any way. That's a true strength of a squad, that inward support from everybody. That was there in abundance in '97 and that was why it was so successful on the field and off the field. We made a lot of friendships and there was never one clique.
"I've got my lists of Lions laws, and togetherness was on it. There was never any question of us against them. It was all 35 preparing to beat the Springboks. Everybody played their part in that and that's why everyone can share in the delight that we won the series because it wasn't done by just the team on the day.
"Geech had known exactly what the Springboks were about. He'd said to us, 'These guys are very proud. They'll just want to run at you, they won't use their heads, they'll just want to be physical and out-muscle you. That's all they'll try to do.'
"And he was absolutely right. Because we were physically smaller compared to them, they just thought they could out-muscle us, which is what they tried to do in that first Test. They all wanted to be heroes that day, and it just didn't work for them.
"At the end of a big, very tough year, to achieve something like a series win on South African soil was marvelous. As Geech always says, '30 years down the road, you'll bump into one of the squad members, and there will be that glance, the knowledge that you were involved in something special'.
"It was the best rugby trip I've ever been on. The sense of camaraderie, the togetherness, the fulfillment and the achievement were out of this world."
Scott Gibbs couldn't fault the Lions' team spirit
Fran Cotton - former Lions prop and 1997 team manager
"The first professional Lions had been written off as 'no hopers' before they left for South Africa, and the very future of Lions tours was being questioned by people with their own selfish, commercial axe to grind. Ultimately, however, the players provided their own perfect riposte and, through the quality of their rugby and the interest it generated, they left nobody in any doubt concerning the desire for the Lions concept to be retained.
"What made it all the sweeter was the knowledge that not many people had given us a chance of winning a Test series in South Africa.
"I can't speak too highly of the 1997 Lions…they took responsibility for their own actions, bonded together superbly as a squad and it is perhaps significant that they followed their own code of conduct so much to the letter that I didn't have one internal disciplinary matter to deal with.
"It was a team effort in every sense and the level of professionalism from players, coaches, administrators and the medical team was higher than I had ever thought possible.
"They came from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but they played as one nation and with one objective: to win a Test series in South Africa. Sometimes in sport, as in life, you get your just rewards for all the hard work you put in. South Africa 1997 was one of those occasions."