Bill Beaumont both captained and managed the Lions
When Bill Beaumont describes the British & Irish Lions as "the biggest brand in world rugby" it is going to take a good argument to knock back his claim.
'Big Bill' knows a thing or too about the world game, having captained both England and the Lions and been acclaimed as one of the best forwards of his generation. So when he looks forward to next year's battle between the reigning world champion Springboks and the Lions it is with a twinkle in his eye and the firm hope and belief that the series will live up to what happened 11 years ago when the British side last went to South Africa.
"The Lions are the biggest brand in world rugby and they will be defending their 1997 Test series win in South Africa against the current world champions - it doesn't come much bigger than that in any sport," said Beaumont, who was Team Manager the last time the Lions toured in 2005.
"But before that 1997 tour the Lions brand was on the wane. The Rugby World Cup had just completed its third tournament and there were those who thought there was no place any more in the professional game for a Lions tour.
"How wrong they were. The 1997 tour to South Africa, when the Springboks were once again World Cup holders, was a huge success and re-launched the Lions.
"Next year's tour is going to be huge. The interest already is phenomenal and the management have some good players to pick from.
"Ian McGeechan is a man who has a great feel for, and understanding of, the Lions and I'm sure he will work well alongside Gerald Davies. They will need a good footballing side with players who have flair and pace.
"They must scrummage well, but South Africa is not a place to go and try to play a territory game. It promises to be a great series.
"Going to South Africa has changed considerably from when I led the Lions there in 1980. In my day we never saw the Springboks play because of their political situation and they hardly toured abroad. We only played against South African players on the Lions tour. It really was like a step into the unknown.
"Next year the Lions are going there having won the last series they played there in 1997 - and with all four Home Countries having played against them once or twice every year. There isn't the same mystique about the Springboks as there used to be and the players of both sides know each other so well."
But one thing that hasn't changed according to the IRB vice-chairman is the honour of playing for the Lions.
"I went on two tours and I have to say the honour of being picked for the Lions elevates you onto an even higher level than playing for your country. You have to prove yourself all over again among a new group of players when you tour with the Lions, and they are the very best from each of the four countries," he added.
"To play in a winning Lions Test team is a very special and huge honour. I was fortunate enough to taste success on my Lions Test debut against New Zealand in 1977 and then win again in South Africa in 1980.
"But we weren't able to win either series, even though the packs of 1977 and 1980 were among the best ever produced by the Lions. We got close in both series, but weren't able to turn our pressure into victories."
As for his stint as Lions captain 28-years ago, Beaumont believes that had his squad not been hit by so many injuries he might have been able to return with an even better record.
The Lions went down 26-22 in the first Test in Cape Town and then lost 26-19 in the second in Bloemfontein. But they weren't far off the pace.
"We were very unlucky with injuries. We had to play four different half-back combinations in the series and lost the services of Terry Holmes and Gareth Davies," recalled Beaumont.
Not only that, they played five different centres and four wings throughout the series. The tone for the tour, the first shortened trip in Lions history with 18 games packed into 10 weeks, was set in the opening game against Eastern Province when the Cardiff and Wales flanker Stuart Lane tore ligaments in his knee in the first minute and was forced to return home.
"I still think we should have at least tied the Test series. As it was, we were unlucky to lose the first, got well beaten in the second, got pipped in the third and won the fourth," said Beaumont.