Andy Irvine is no stranger to Lions adventures but he admits his latest role will be more than a little different to everything that’s gone before.
Irvine toured three times with the Lions as a player, tasting series success against the Springboks in 1974 and winning further Tests caps in 1977 and 1980 before returning to South Africa as chairman three years ago.
Now the 60-year-old former Scotland full back is preparing to embark on a fifth Lions trip, and his first to Australia, this time as tour manager.
Irvine has swapped tasks with fellow Lions legend Gerald Davies, with Davies taking on the role of chairman for the 2013 series with the Wallabies. That particular title was a huge honour for Irvine but his current position is even more hands on.
“The team manager’s role is much more involved. As the chairman, you’re at the top of the tree chairing the meetings but not getting involved in an awful lot of the detail. The management role is very different,” said Irvine, who scored 267 points for the Lions in nine Tests and 32 provincial appearances.
“It’s much, much more time consuming, probably four of five times so. I work very closely with Guy Richardson, the director of operations, and once the coach is appointed I’ll be working very closely with him in relation to the other appointments.
“My job is to support him as much as I possibly can. If there’s anything he needs, I’ve got to do my best to secure that for him.
“Then there’s the ambassadorial role. You go to a lot of sponsorship events, you do a lot of entertaining and when we’re out in Australia there will be a lot of functions to go to. In that sense, it’s quite demanding. It would be nice to spend more time with the players but that’s really the role of the coach and his back-up team. The great things is that once the games start the pressure tends to come off a little bit because you can enjoy the games."
Andy Irvine was Lions chairman in 2009 and is now tour manager
Enjoying Lions games is something Irvine has done in both the amateur and professional eras and he insists the feeling hasn’t been diluted since the game moved into the paid ranks.
Despite critics predicting the Lions’ would die a rapid death after rugby union went open prior to the 1997 tour, the world’s most-famous touring team has simply got bigger and better, attracting record numbers of followers and generating worldwide interest inside and outside of sporting circles.
“The Lions club really is very special. It’s one of the few things that’s been retained from the amateur era. There is still this old-fashioned sense of values and camaraderie and I genuinely believe the Lions will continue to go from strength to strength,” added Irvine.
“I would love to have played on a Lions tour where you had 40,000 following supporters. That first Test in Durban in 2009, I’ll never forget it. The whole of the terracing across from us was completely red. It looked as if you were at a Manchester United game or a Wales game, it was just phenomenal.
“And it’s not just us over here in Britain and Ireland that a Lions tour means so much either. I was intrigued to hear what Australian coach Robbie Deans had to say when we announced the tour schedule in November in Cardiff.
“I was saying to Robbie that I knew he was under pressure because some of his star players were looking to take advantage of the huge money available in France. But he said to me, ‘No Andy, you chaps are doing us a great favour because it’s such a big thing for these lads to play against the Lions. I’m not concerned about them going overseas because they want to sign up with us so they can take on you guys in 2013’.”
The 2013 Lions tour will be huge for both Test teams and their supporters
If Australia’s star names are determined to stay put for a shot at the Lions, thousands upon thousands of fans will be joining them in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and the like.
The Lions will enjoy tremendous support from their loyal followers in stadiums all across Australia next summer as the Red Army look to recreate the incredible scenes of the first Test some 12 years ago.
Lions fans have become famous for their commitment to the cause, for their faith in the Lions’ mantra and for their willingness to spend their hard earned finances supporting their heroes on the other side of the globe, but it’s not just on the pitch where the Lions experience incredible backing.
Those qualities can also be found among the companies who set the foundations for the Lions off the field, the men and women who align their businesses with one of sport’s greatest institutions and without whom tours to the southern hemisphere would be even more difficult to organise.
“Lions tours are expensive – it costs a lot of money to run a Lions tour.
“It costs millions and millions of pounds to run a Lions tour and it’s a huge logistical event. There’s the players and then there’s an entourage of about 30 people in terms of backroom staff that go on tour so it costs a lot of money.
“Without the support of our sponsors like HSBC, Rhino and First Cape, Lions tours couldn’t take place. Without them, it wouldn’t be viable.
“We’ve got a super commercial team behind the Lions. CEO John Feehan and his team in Dublin have been involved for two or three tours now and they know what it’s all about, so we’re very well served in that department.
“We don’t just enjoy the benefits of our sponsors’ financial support either – we enjoy working with them because this is a special club.
“We’re very fortunate that the Lions brand is such that we’ve never really struggled for quality sponsors and I’m not just talking about the quality of the money but also the quality of support they provide as well. That’s vital.”