The greatest call of all

With the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa now just over a fortnight away, we take a look at how Lions stars of the past and present found about their selection for the most-famous touring team in world rugby. [more]

The greatest call of all

With the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa now just over a fortnight away, we take a look at how Lions stars of the past and present found about their selection for the most-famous touring team in world rugby.

It’s a moment that those who have been fortunate enough to experience remember as if it were yesterday, a ‘JFK’ moment if you like, where the great and the good know exactly where they were when their dreams of touring with Britain and Ireland’s elite became a reality.

However and whenever they found out, those who have earned the call will never forget the sense of pride attached to that achievement. They will never forget the day that they joined a special group of players and ensured their own names would be remembered with the best of the best.

Here’s how Gareth Edwards, Mike Teague, Neil Back, Stephen Ferris, Leigh Halfpenny, and Nathan Hines discovered they were to become a British & Irish Lion for the very first time…

Gareth Edwards

Widely regarded as the greatest player ever to grace the game, Edwards won 10 Test caps for the Lions across three tours, including the historic series wins over the All Blacks and the Springboks in the early’70s. Now an HSBC ambassador for the 2009 tour of South Africa, Edwards recalls the moment he learned of his Lions selection back in 1968.
"Things are very different now with regards to the media focus and excitement around a British & Irish Lions tour. Back in my day, all the players were told they were selected by letter.

"I was there waiting for this brown envelope to arrive. I was so nervous I struggled to open it but when I did it read, ‘Dear Mr Edwards, you have been selected to tour with the British Lions to South Africa. Please find enclosed a voucher for two pairs of boots. We advise that you bring a heavy sweater with you as it can be chilly in the evenings in South Africa.’ 

"It’s slightly different to nowadays and the amount of kit the squads receive!
"I felt such a thrill and so much anticipation as I was going to be playing alongside my heroes like Willie-John McBride."

Mike Teague

The Gloucester flanker toured with the Lions in 1989 and 1993, playing in three Tests in which he never finished on the losing side. Here Teague describes his feelings on learning of selection for the tour of Australia 20 years ago, a tour in which his stunning performances in the second and third internationals would lead to him being named Man of the Series.

Gareth Edwards and Mike Teague still treasure their Lions call ups

"1989 in particular was special to me. Ian McGeechan was coach and for some reason I was lucky enough to be named as the Player of the Series.

"Every single rugby player strives to be a Lion. All I wanted when I was growing up was to be a Lion.

"In 1985 I played for England but was blown out of the side. I was fitter when I then got recalled and was in the team for the last England game against Wales before the Lions tour.

"I believe that my appearance for England that day was the shortest ever appearance for an international. I think it took 3.8 seconds before I was knocked out. As soon as it happened I assumed that I had missed out on Lions selection.

"But then the following Monday, I received a phone call. I picked up the phone and heard the voice on the other end ask if that was Mike Teague, the British Lion.

"That was the first I knew about being selected and is perhaps my proudest moment in my entire career."

Neil Back

Leicester’s World Cup winning openside was a triple Lions tourist having earned selection in 1997, 2001 and 2005. He is currently the oldest player to have won Test honours with the Lions but here he explains how he discovered he was to become a Lion the first time around at the age of 28.

"When my letter inviting me to join that squad hit the doormat, it had me in tears.

"It’s a very special thing. Once you’ve made it to international level and you’ve got off the one-cap mark, I suppose the next goal is 50 caps. Very few get to 100. The next step up is to play for the Lions. It’s the best of the four Home Nations and it’s got tremendous traditions.

"Receiving that letter was a real highlight. The 1997 tour was a massive thing for me. My struggle to get international recognition at the highest level was well documented but it’s made me the person I am and I wouldn’t change a thing.

"Being involved with that fantastic Test series win in ’97 and having an influence in gaining success in a team sport was a great experience."

Neil Back’s first tour as Lion came in South Africa 12 years ago

Stephen Ferris

Stephen Ferris was one of 14 Irishmen selected for this summer’s 10-match tour of South Africa. The Ulster flanker tasted Grand Slam success earlier this year but he still admits to being surprised to learn of his call up to Ian McGeechan’s 37-man squad late last month.

While many of his contemporaries were glued to Sky Sports News for the much-talked about announcement, the 23-year-old took a far more relaxed approach and simply carried on with his preparations for a Magners League clash with Cardiff Blues.

"I was out here in Ulster training my guts out for a couple of hours, for the game against Cardiff on the Friday.

"I just dandered in, got a shower and came back out. I was just kicking a ball about the pitch and then Jonny Davis, our fitness coach, came out and gave me the old thumbs up.

"It was fantastic, he just came over and shook my hand and said ‘well done.’

"It was just like, ‘wow, I’m in the British & Irish Lions.’ It’s the pinnacle of rugby, it’s the highest level you can go to."

Leigh Halfpenny

The Cardiff Blues wing became the youngest Lion since countryman Keith Jarrett to earn selection for the Lions despite only making his international debut in November last year. Although talked about as a possible tourist in the lead up to the announcement, the call up still shocked Halfpenny and his family when his involvement was clarified during the televised press conference.

"I knew there had been talk in the build-up that I may have a chance of being included, but it was only when I woke up at 5am on Tuesday morning that I thought, ‘this is actually happening’. I couldn’t get back to sleep!

"I found out watching the television in my house in Swansea with my girlfriend and my best friend.

"We were all really nervous and then when the announcement came through, I jumped up and nearly hit my head on the light above me.

"Everyone was in tears. I rang my parents straightaway and they were in tears too."

Leigh Halfpenny has enjoyed a remarkable rise to the top of the sport

Nathan Hines

One of just two Scotsmen named in the original touring party, Hines was forced to answer a call of nature when tour manager Gerald Davies began reading out the chosen few. Sitting in a commode in his French home in Perpignan, Hines received the news he had been dreaming of in some style!

"Representing the Lions is the creme de la creme, the squad of squads, the best players from four countries. It is difficult to explain, it is something all British players want to experience.

"I’ve worked really hard since January when I injured my knee and it’s a road I’ve been down before.

"I’d gone for a nervous trip to the loo and started to get text messages of congratulations in before the announcement on my screen. It’s still only just sinking in."

And finally…Donnacha O’Callaghan

It may not have been his first selection for the Lions, but the way in which O’Callaghan found out he would become a Lion for the second time in four years certainly showed that the Ireland lock has real guts.

A Lion in 2005, O’Callaghan was in most people’s probable squad for this year’s series against the Springboks, but the confidence of others failed to rub off on the man himself as he spent the build up to the announcement nervously waiting for any indication that he might be included.

Instead of watching the announcement on his own or with family and friends in a quiet and relaxed atmosphere, O’Callaghan did exactly the opposite and waited to be put out of his misery in front of a whole host of aspiring young professionals desperate to follow in his footsteps.

"I was starting to worry when I hadn’t heard anything. I know they told us how it would be done (live on TV) but still I thought ‘yeah right – there will be some bit of word before that’. But no, nothing.

"So I was there with the Munster Academy boys and Tomas O’Leary, and I’m thinking, this isn’t the place to be. What’ll I do in front of these lads if I’m not picked.

"Then Gerald Davies starts to read out the names and when he calls out Mike Phillips, Harry Ellis, O’Leary goes, ‘Oh no’, thinking that’s his chance’s gone because they’ll just bring two nines. But straight away his name is called and he’s jumping up and down going ‘Yeeeeees’.

"My case wasn’t helped when they switched channels just after that but they switched back just in time for me to hear my name and, ah well, I was just delighted.

"But after that you think of the lads not selected, your team-mates, and realise just how lucky you are."

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