An agonising wait

Being selected for a Lions tour is the pinnacle of any British or Irish player's career. [more]

An agonising wait

Being selected for a Lions tour is the pinnacle of any British or Irish player’s career.

Except it isn’t. Not quite.

Hearing your name read out among a long list of elite tourists must be one hell of a feeling but, for every single member of any Lions squad, there is one more ultimate goal to chase.

Making the squad is one thing; making the Test team is another achievement entirely.

For all the talk of the squad ethic of the Lions and the camaraderie that makes the world’s most-famous touring team so unique, every single Lion yearns for a Test cap.

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No one heads out on tour just to make up the numbers. Every Lions tourist has higher ambitions – to be among the 15 players named in the starting line up for the Test series or, at the very least, to be among the seven replacements in with a shot of making an impact at some stage during 80 minutes of the highest standard of rugby imaginable.

For some Lions, the reward is almost instant. For those lucky enough to receive that honour in their first Test, on their first tour, the excitement must be huge. But for those who are forced to wait, for those who experience the agony of missing out due to form, injury or just bad luck, finally receiving the call when you feared your time might just be slipping away must be close to the best feeling in the world.

That was certainly the case for a trio of Lions heroes of recent times. Scott Quinnell, Simon Shaw and Rob Howley know what it feels like to experience the lows before the ultimate high.

Howley was one of the star performers on the historic 1997 tour of South Africa, showing the wider world what Wales already knew courtesy of a series of magnificent performances for Britain and Ireland’s elite.

The Bridgend, Cardiff and London Wasps scrum-half was a nailed-on certainty for a Test spot before injury cruelly robbed him of a boyhood dream.

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Rob Howley's 1997 tour ended without a Test cap

Severe shoulder damage in his fourth game in Lions colours against Natal in mid June brought Howley’s tour to a premature end and threatened to derail the Lions’ chances of glory.

And while his replacement Matt Dawson wrote himself into the history books with two Test tries in the Lions’ stunning series victory, Howley was nothing more than a frustrated spectator.

But despite that disappointment, Howley hit back four long years later. Having skippered Wales to 15 wins in 22 Tests and 10 successive international wins, Howley was back in Lions colours on the 2001 tour of Australia.

Again his tour ended in misery thanks to yet another injury but at least this time he fulfilled his goal of representing the Lions in a full-on Test match.

Just as he had been in 1997, Howley was one of the squad’s most consistent and outstanding performers.

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Howley deservedly won Test honours with the Lions in 2001

His reward was a place in the Lions team for the first rubber against the Wallabies in Brisbane at the end of June, a date that will forever be etched in Howley’s mind.

"The highlight of 2001 for me came in the first Test, when I got my chance to win a Lions cap," said Howley, who has since been part of Sir Ian McGeechan’s coaching team on the 2009 tour of South Africa.

"My tour ended in 1997 with a shoulder injury before I had the chance to battle for a Test place. But it was different in 2001 as I took my place in the side in Brisbane.

"After going through the agony and disappointment of 1997, it meant even more to me to win a Lions cap. I’ll certainly never forget June 30, 2001 – the most important date of my rugby career.

"I’ve never been as nervous before a match as I was for that game in Brisbane as it was a journey into the unknown for me.

"But to put that Lions jersey on means so much to me and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

"I went on tour with a goal – to play in a Test match – and I achieved that, so on a personal level it was a very satisfying trip."

If Howley’s wait for Lions Test redemption was long enough, Shaw’s must have been almost unbearable.

The giant England second row made the ’97 tour to South Africa alongside Howley and Quinnell but, just like both other men, he failed to make the Test team.

While the Welsh duo missed out through injury and were able to make amends on the very next tour, Shaw’s rise to the top was far more protracted.

Shaw was fit for the duration of that first South African adventure – he was simply overlooked in favour of the legendary Martin Johnson and the impressive Jeremy Davidson.

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Simon Shaw was a Lion but not a Test Lion in 1997

Four years later, Shaw didn’t even receive a call. The Lions didn’t need him. It was the same scenario a further four seasons down the line. Sir Clive Woodward named by far the largest squad in Lions history but, again, Shaw wasn’t included.

The Wasps lock did eventually win a late call up for that tour but, you’ve guessed it, Test rugby wasn’t on the agenda. Just like he had done in 1997, Shaw finished the tour but he did so without a prized Test cap.

Most critics presumed that would be that. Shaw would be 36 in 2009, surely too old to make a third Lions tour in what was fast becoming a young man’s sport.

But the affable Bristol University graduate had the last word. Shaw found arguably the form of his life, made McGeechan’s original 37-man squad in April and then, 12 years after his Lions adventure had begun, eventually got his hands on a Test cap.

"It's been a long while. Mid way through the season I didn't really think I had a chance of even making the plane," said Shaw, after being named in the starting line up for the Lions’ second Test in Pretoria having missed out on the first encounter a week earlier.

"It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point. This tour didn't really start that well for me and I then began to think I might go back empty handed again in terms of a Test cap.

"When the Test squads are announced, it's a pretty miserable time if you're not selected. The day after, you learn to justify it in your brain and accept it.

"There are a lot of things that go through your head when you are sitting there watching the game, but ultimately we are all here for one reason – to beat the Boks. Whether I'd been selected or not I'd have offered my advice for the following week.

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Shaw finally won a Lions Test cap 12 years after his first tour

"Over the years I've learnt you've just got to keep plugging away and keep trying. Then, hopefully, someone will see something positive in you and give you a chance.

"I think it's just self belief. Your friends and your family will keep telling you that you're the best but, at the end of the day, you have to believe it yourself. I just kept trying to believe it and now it's finally happened."

Shaw’s sense of relief at the squad’s press conference following McGeechan’s Test-team announcement was visible for all to see. He looked as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

The scene was set for Shaw to make up for years of waiting; for summers of disappointment; and for moments of doubt. And make up for them he did, producing two sublime displays in both the second and third Tests as the 2009 Lions came so close to achieving rugby immortality.

There had been a similar response from Quinnell some eight years earlier. The burly Welshman used his own personal disappointment from the 1997 tour to inspire not only himself but also those around him in 2001.

Quinnell had been hit hard by his ‘failure’ to finish his first Lions adventure. Such a reaction was hardly surprisingly, given that representing the Lions was the major reason why he had turned his back on rugby league to return the 15-a-side version of the sport after a highly successful spell up north.

Just like his international colleague Howley, Quinnell had begun the ’97 tour in stunning form. Just like Howley, he looked set to win a Test berth. But, just like Howley, injury dealt him the cruelest of blows.

Quinnell had travelled Down Under with hernia problems but had hoped they would not have an impact on his participation. Early on, things looked good, but things soon fell apart.

The powerhouse No8 made the bravest rugby decision of all – to step aside for the sake of the team.

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Scott Quinnell's Lions dream came crashing down in '97

Quinnell would face a long road to finally put things right. Injuries and a drop in form led many to question whether he would get another chance, but fate ensured that he did.

In 2001, Quinnell made the trip to Australia and finally made the Lions Test team. To cap it all he scored one of the Lions’ four tries in the 29-13 thrashing of the Wallabies in the first rubber. That moment was a long time coming, but Quinnell insists it was worth the wait.

"It’s difficult to express what a Lions call up means to a player. I’d left rugby league for this opportunity, and when it came it exceeded all my dreams," said Quinnell.

"But it ended in disappointment. I had injections and painkillers and anti-inflammatories to go out and continue through the tour but, unfortunately, it didn't last.

"Four weeks in, with the tour going from strength to strength, I began to struggle. I knew my hernias weren’t going to last.

"It's one of those situations where I probably could have lasted another couple of weeks and made it worse and worse but I didn't want to distract from what the Lions were doing. If I played, I couldn't play at 100 per cent. You've got to justify to yourself and to everybody else why you can't do that.

"The Lions jersey is special and that badge is not for me to take advantage of. I'd rather have stepped aside and gone home and had the operation rather than let someone down at a vital time.

"I was struggling with training and playing and the decision was made to step aside. It was one of the hardest of my life. To hold your hands up and say that you've failed and that your body has given up on you and then sit at home and watch it on television was one of the hardest few weeks of my life.It was heartbreaking.

"I felt the elation when the series was won, but the personal disappointment of falling just short of a Test cap was intense.

"I vowed then that my sole aim for the next four years was to get that Lions cap in 2001.

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Quinnell was a tryscorer on his Lions Test debut

"I’m immensely proud of the fact that I stuck to the vow I made in 1997. I’d set myself that goal and overcome some pretty hug obstacles to get there and be selected. It was a magical feeling to hear your name called out.

"Lots of people ask me about the try. Well, not so much the try itself, but the nod I did after touching down. All I can say is that it was a bit of a personal sign. There, with the ball under my chest on the Gabba turf, I’d finally achieved my goal. Everything had come together…Australia 2001 will always be the stuff of dreams for me."

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