1997 was an important year. I was 17 at the time and unsure of my place in a world beyond boarding school – my escape from the monotony of life in and above the newsagents my parents ran in Brighton.
Mum and dad had instilled a life-long discipline and graft that would serve my elder brother and I well in our studies. But we both wanted to excel in other ways. Top of the list was rugby, a sport our school had a decent reputation for.
Carrying a few extra pounds and with no pace to burn, we were put in the front row. There we stayed from 5 till 18. At first, it was more a compulsory requirement than childhood ambition but it felt good to be part of something and that made me want to endure the harrowing fitness sessions.
You might say it was boys being boys, wanting to act tough, but I think it goes deeper than that. Some of my happiest times have been on the rugby pitch, taking up the challenge side by side with my teammates, who swiftly became friends.
A coming-of-age tour around Ireland springs to mind, a bunch of 16-year-olds belting out ‘Wonderwall’ in the bus, just as the Lions would do a couple of years later in Cape Town’s Tequila Cantina after beating Western Province.
By 1997, I was feeling like the proverbial square peg as I packed down against guys with bull necks and ox-like constitutions. Rangy and hardworking, with a useful disregard for my own welfare, I could still see a way to contribute (subsequently moving to lock at Leicester University.) That, for me, is the joy of the game. Rugby is the epitome of team sport. There is a place for everyone, if they really want it.
It’s about teams within teams. You are reliant upon one other to be in the right place at the right time – and to make the right decision when you get there. Do I go to ground or into contact? Should I peel off to the blindside if I sniff a gap, or move towards my teammates and set up a maul? After a catch and drive at the line-out, how far is too far?
Here’s where I measured up: doing the basics well, knowing my place (in every respect) and keeping it simple (forwards go forward). Then I’d wake up the next day and vow to improve. It’s an attitude so powerfully evoked in this speech by coach Jim Telfer. You might know it.
“There are two types of rugby players,” he told the 1997 Lions squad. “There’s honest ones, and there’s the rest. The honest player gets up in the morning and looks himself in the mirror, and sets his standard. Sets his stall out and says I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better.
“He doesn’t complain about the food, or the beds, or buses, or the referees. Or all these sorts of things. These are just peripheral things that weak players have always complained about. The dishonest player.”
Honesty is a watchword in sport but around 1997 it felt like a clarion call – for rugby union, for the Lions and myself.
“It was like the Wild West when the game went professional,” former RFU professional rugby director Rob Andrew told The Guardian in 2015. (Andrew was one of the first big names to go pro, signing for Newcastle United Sports Club as a player and director of rugby development in 1995.)
Ultimately, these concerns were growing pains. In 2000, Adrian Smith and Dilwyn Porter looked back on this watershed period in Amateurs and Professionals in Post-War British Sport. “An over-precious attitude to the impact of money in rugby union further obscured the fact that the standard of senior rugby in England improved dramatically,” they wrote, “and that this impacted on the national side, and most clearly of all upon the 1997 Lions.
“The latter were successful because of: the players enjoying a level of fitness built up over a season of full-time training with no distractions; an infusion of handling skills and an attitude previously unique to rugby league; and a fluency, adventure and flexibility previously seen as a preserve of the southern hemisphere.”
For a squad still coming to terms with full-time rugby, the influence of code-switchers such as Scott Gibbs, John Bentley and Alan Tait cannot be overestimated. “What the rugby league boys brought was the professionalism,” says coach Sir Ian McGeechan, “and they set the mark from week one on how important it was to get it right, not make unforced errors… They were tremendous role models.”
There was a lot at stake on this tour and not just for the players. The Lions, as an institution, was under threat. “You can’t quite believe it now but there were serious questions whether [they] would end up a bit like the Barbarians,” says Duncan Humphreys who co-directed the seminal Living With Lions documentary.
He and Fred Rees had raised £30,000 to make the film but then ITV and the BBC said they wouldn’t buy it because the Lions were going to lose all the matches. It was as if the squad had been written off and consigned to the past before a ball had been kicked.
Here is where we begin to understand the wider significance of 1997 and how to this seminal documentary, with its unprecedented behind-the-scenes access, revealed both the brotherhood at the core of a successful rugby team and the ecstasy and pain of top-flight competition.
Fans rave about the walk-through-walls weight of key speeches by McGeechan (“You are special”) and Telfer (“This is your Everest”) but touring players were also stunned by their magnitude. Backs such as John Bentley and Matt Dawson never experienced Telfer’s quiet fire in a forwards meeting. Their memory of 1997 was directly influenced by what the crew captured. Four-time tourist Brian O’Driscoll was inspired to become a professional rugby player after watching Living With Lions, saying “I wanted to be part of that.”
Although the Springboks had lost a series to the All Blacks for the first time on home soil the previous year, they were still the reigning world champions with big-match players such as Joost van der Westhuizen, Gary Teichmann, Andre Joubert and Os du Randt. And the Lions had only triumphed in one Test series over there in the past 100 years (Willie John McBride’s Invincibles winning 21 out of 22 in 1974).
Four countries with seven weeks to come together as one team and get it right against the best in their own backyard. In South Africa, as Lawrence Dallaglio says, you are up against a whole nation. To win a series there is arguably an even greater prize than lifting a World Cup. Adopting Telfer’s analogy, they were underdogs at the base of their Everest. Each man had to ask themselves: how high can I go? How far am I willing to go?
Watching their exploits on TV, and then pouring over the backstory on the VHS, I asked the same question. Not just as a player, but as a young man on the cusp of adulthood. How hard was I willing to work – to make a team, to get a degree, to find a good job, to develop relationships, to pursue a dream and so on? Through all the setbacks, disappointments, tragedy… It was this notion of taking responsibility for my own destiny, rather than making excuses and blaming others as Telfer alluded to in that forwards’ meeting.
Everyone has their favourite 1997 moment: Dawson’s outrageous dummy to score in the first test; Scott Gibbs bulldozing the bulldozer du Randt; John Bentley scoring that sensational try against Gauteng Lions to help get the tour back on track. Each of them iconic. But the selfless and more subtle gestures made an equally big impression.
“It’s not all about the player’s ability,” said tour manager Fran Cotton when explaining squad selection to Total Rugby in 2012. “You’re looking for those guys who are going to give you everything they’ve got every game, no matter the disappointment. I think in 1997 we got it right. We had that balance of really good players and those with the character and grit to stick at the task even when things were tough.”
One example that often crops up is Jason Leonard, an experienced international in pole position for a Test spot at prop. Then Paul Wallace and Tom Smith played their way into the starting XV. Rather than sulk about it or drift into the background, he was so supportive and played a crucial role in preparing the duo for battle. That is why McGeechan says Leonard is one of the greatest Lions.
It was a mentality mirrored by tour jester Bentley, who, in a rare sullen moment on play cam, looks past missing out on a starting spot for the first Test and pledges to do everything he can to help “the boys”. We also hear in this conversation how Gibbs insisted everyone train the day after the first Test, as an act of togetherness.
Then you have Martin Johnson, and not for the first time, putting the cause before personal health after sustaining a deep cut under the eye against Natal. “C’mon, just put some stitches in,” he snipes, eager to rejoin his men. The rookie captain was chosen as leader not only for his toughness but also his “truthfulness and honesty”, as mum Hilary put it when consulted by Cotton. That word again. Honesty.
Think about the moments leading up to that decisive drop-kick in the second Test. Guscott was only in range because certain players had done things that wouldn’t normally be expected of them: the centre making a tackle and committing to a ruck, Keith Wood kicking and chasing into the opposition’s 22, and then fly-half Gregor Townsend taking the ball into contact. That’s partly instinct, but also the impact of those team-building sessions in Weybridge weeks before.
You cannot win a Lions Tour without a blend of talent and experience in your squad, and a data-driven strategy that helps you get the best out of them, as McGeechan explained. They knew that even back in 1997. But Will Greenwood made an equally valid point in a Sky Sports special, reflecting on T-CUP advocate Clive Woodward’s micro-managed approach to the 2005 tour.
“Sometimes sports science and four-year plans have to go out the window,” he said. “A Lion still has that Corinthianism and you need to understand what makes people tick next to you. So you need to share time. Spending that time together allows you to create those bonds that you then fight for on the pitch.”
The wonder of 1997 was that, thanks to the documentary, I was able to see the true measure of each player’s character. How they sweated together, bled together, drank, cheered, commiserated and encouraged one another as a real squad, long before that word became a hashtag. All to overcome one of the toughest challenges of their lives.
Although I hung up my boots almost two decades ago, I have carried forward the lessons of this tour into later life. My two greatest challenges have been the abrupt loss of my mother Nilu, who I was very close to, and my brother Hemal, who passed in the middle of the night after an aneurysm.
Hemal was a big rugby man; we watched Living with Lions over and over. The sport became the glue in our relationship after he left for Scotland to become a doctor. He worked gruelling hours but would always make time to speculate on Lions squad selections or stir up debate in the Facebook group. Our time together was so limited; I cling to that early morning in an Oxford pub as we watched the Lions level the series against New Zealand in 2017.
I had written two eulogies by the age of 40. The trauma of loss can be so debilitating, it becomes irrecoverable. Grief isolates you and makes you question the worth of everything you have done in your life. But there is a way through and it starts by realising that this is bigger than you. There is power in accepting the full force of what you go through, as it prepares you to support someone in a similar position when that day comes.
Certain things are out of your control. What you can control is your attitude and how you respond. My impulse in difficult times – partly influenced by this tour – has been to learn and evolve. To draw on the experiences of those around me and use them to find an approach that feels true to me.
And that applies to my career also. Being a professional writer is a marathon, not a sprint. Writers have the opportunity to be better one feature, one paragraph, one line, one word at a time. They pour whatever wisdom they glean from colleagues, clients, interviewees and other encounters into stories that make meaning in the lives of others.
Not a day goes by without the words of Jim Telfer ringing in my ears, urging me to be better. The 1997 series represents not only the pinnacle in rugby but proof that anything is possible when you commit the best of yourself to something greater.
As for disappointments – you don’t get over them, you channel them, just as he did (having lost three previous Lions series). The former schoolteacher was a brilliant coach because he knows what rugby is really all about.
“The game is a way of people getting better as individuals.”
This article is part of the British & Irish Lions Freelance Writers Project.
Amar is a freelance journalist, copywriter and mentor, who has worked with Straight No Chaser, the BBC, Culture Trip, Lexus, O2 and Positive News among others. His main beats are arts, technology and culture – anything from print features and website content to scripting radio documentaries and short films. Read more here or follow him on Twitter.