Your Club Your Lions project highlights relationship with grassroots clubs
Every British & Irish Lions rugby story starts with a first trip down to a local club and initial coaching from the mentors who populate training fields up and down Britain and Ireland every weekend morning.
As with every past Lions Tour, the bonds the people and places formed when the 2017 Lions began to make their way in the game remain strong – even as the players establish themselves in the professional game.
The links are sustained by quiet trips home to award medals, coach a session or two or watch friends playing at whatever level they’ve found in the game.
That continues a tradition as old as the Lions itself of players who have worn the red jersey giving back to the club, and bringing a measure of pride to the membership.
This relationship with the grassroots is illustrated by the Your Clubs Your Lions project – which has as its centerpiece a map featuring every club to have produced a Lion since the very first Tour in 1888 – an online library of more than 800 players.
From that unique resource, it’s clear to see that the Lions really have come from all four corners of Britain and Ireland – from Galway to Heriot’s, Aberavon to Newcastle.
British & Irish Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland said: “The Lions is unique, and when you look at this map, it is just one more example of what makes it so special.
“It’s great to be able to see where all the Lions have come from and to recognise the clubs and, by association, all the unsung heroes who have given so much to develop these players.
“As a gateway to the stories and the clubs, it’s fantastic. There is something there for anyone with an interest in club rugby, as it is a fascinating way of connecting with the Lions.”
We have reconnected with many of the grassroots clubs which have proved so vital to the success of The British & Irish Lions over the years, to learn more about their character and nuances.
KEN RETURNS TO HIS ROOTS
It has been nearly 25 years since Lion Ken Owens began his rugby career with Carmarthen Athletic for example, and the hooker continues to hold the club which gave him his start in the highest esteem.
“These clubs are a hub for the community, at the Athletic there are well over 100 kids in the junior section, for a small town like that it gives them something to do every Saturday,” he said.
“There are a lot of local boys playing, the clubhouse is full every weekend, it is the centre of the community. For me, that is where all my mates were and I have a lot of lifelong friends.”
And Owens hopes that browsing through the list of locations on the Your Club Your Lions map can help inspire people young and old at the clubs which are so dear to the hearts of the 2017 Lions.
He added: “It is about inspiring the next generation. Some guys maybe don’t get the chance to go back to their clubs like I do. I try to go back as much as I can.
“But if a young kid reads the piece and thinks: ‘Oh, wow Ken Owens or whoever is from the same club as me, I didn’t know that’, then hopefully they are inspired – because it can happen for anyone.
“You always hear the old boys talking about playing for the Lions, but I think I am the first since professionalism.
“So hopefully I can have my picture moved to the middle of the clubhouse – there is a full line of Welsh internationals on the wall and the Lions are in the middle so I want to get in there!
“The Athletic have the largest collection of sporting memorabilia in the world (it is in the Guinness Book of world records) so they moved clubhouses and said they have not got enough space at the moment – I hope they make some room for me but they are quite picky!”
With every Tour, new clubs earn the honour of having a Lion hail from their patch with Battersea Ironsides, New Ross and Waunarlwydd just three examples from 2017.
The Ironsides are based in south west London and welcome more than 1,000 young players between the age of six and 18, despite not having their own ground.
They rent space from local schools and the council and it’s a club that are proud to have played a part in the development of Harlequins, England and British & Irish Lions prop Kyle Sinckler.
“Our location is really good. We were at a fun day a number of weeks ago and Kyle came down to it,” Ironsides’ first team captain Marcus Bailey explained.
“Everyone has their own lives in south west London. But at the club we all know each other. It is a place where people come together. That is a testament to the club.
“I was so happy for Kyle (when he was selected for the Lions). Everyone at the club is so happy – there is a big banner up there now so it is a real local success.”
Speaking to the clubs who are proudly watching on as their former players go toe-to-toe with New Zealand’s best, a number of common themes begin to emerge.
There’s the memorabilia which sits in the clubhouses, the pride the club feels towards having a youngster go so far in the game, and the inspiration the player provides to the next generation.
Winger Liam Williams is the first player from Waunarlwydd RFC to be selected for the Lions, and club chairman Andrew Wedlake still sees the Wales international regularly.
“We have 250 kids on a Sunday and he (Williams) often wanders down and explains how he was in their shoes about ten years ago,” Wedlake said.
“He’s a hero for them and he’s very good with the kids, he’s excellent on that and a good ambassador for rugby. He’s left a mark on a lot of people in our area, everyone knows him.”
— New Ross RFC (@NewRossRFC2014) April 19, 2017
Across the Irish Sea, there is a familiar story at New Ross as they continue to celebrate Tadhg Furlong’s meteoric rise through the Leinster, Ireland and Lions ranks.
Furlong is the club’s first professional player, let alone Lion, and he regularly returns to the club where his father was a coach and which he first joined as a five-year-old.
“His father was a tight-head prop as well, but he was less forgiving than Tadhg and a lot more old school,” said former youth coordinator Maurice Quirke.
“His dad never coached him at New Ross but I bet he coached him in the car and in the garden.
“He (Tadhg) is always happy to come to the club for anything, like training with the kids, a dinner-dance or giving out awards.”