A – Anniversary
When the Lions take flight for South Africa next July, it will mark their 128th anniversary in a storied history. In that time, they have given Lions caps to 835 players and played 110 Tests against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia combined. In Tests against the Springboks, the Lions have prevailed on 17 occasions in their 46 Tests, with a 36 per cent win rate.
B – Battle of Ballymore
The Second Test of the 1989 Series will live long in the memory. Dubbed the Battle of Ballymore by a partisan Australian press, the Lions had been on the backfoot after a 30-12 loss in the first Test. They were outscored by four tries to none leaving Lions captain Finlay Calder bereft. The big backrow offered to relinquish his captaincy, but a stirring fightback from 21-11 down to a 41-25 victory against the ACT Brumbies in mid-week marked a turning point for the squad. In an eye-wateringly physical encounter, Wade Dooley and Mike Teague dominated and by the time Jeremy Guscott collected his own grubber kick to go in under the posts, the Lions were in the ascendency. The game ended 19-12 to the Lions and despite accusations of crossing the line, the Lions closed ranks and the Series a week later in Sydney.
C – Cefneithin
This small hamlet, nine miles North of Llanelli has produced three notable rugby men who all had a strong affiliation with the Lions. Gareth Davies, the current WRU chairman and former Lion played cricket there, while ‘The King’ Barry John hailed from the village. The final member of the triumvirate was arguably the most influential. Carwyn James, coach of the 1971 Tour had a gift with words and opined on the quality of his star half-backs, John and Gareth Edwards, “I love an inner calm, a coolness, a detachment; an insouciance which is brilliant. Some sniffed the wind but they created it.” He went on to become the only Lions coach to register a Series win in New Zealand. The son of a coalminer, James was a gifted fly-half for Llanelli and Wales but it was as a rugby coach that he left a lasting legacy. He encouraged attacking play wherever a side were on the pitch. It was an idealistic and romantic approach that, dovetailed with sensitive man-management brought dizzying success. James went on to inspire the 1973 Barbarians to a famous win over the All Blacks and his belief in his players is said to have inspired Phil Bennett to attack from deep for THAT Gareth Edwards try.
D – Dr Jack Matthews
Those of tender years may scratch their heads at the mention of Dr Jack Matthews but there have been few tougher centres to have played for the Lions. Short, squat and barrel chested, in a similar vein to Scott Gibbs, Matthews’ power was such that during the Second World War, while based at St Athan, he had a draw after a bout with world heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. Matthews played in six Tests for the Lions in 1950 on the Tour of Australia and New Zealand, where he was dubbed ‘The Iron Man’ by the locals, while he was again involved in the 1980 Tour of South Africa as Team Doctor. Never a shrinking violet, at the age of 84, he challenged Sir Clive Woodward’s tactics ahead of the 2005 Tour.
E – Gareth Edwards
‘That boy Edwards’ as Cliff Morgan so mellifluously purred was a Lions tourist on three Tours. The unsuccessful 1968 Tour of South Africa, the Series win in 1971 to New Zealand and the invincible Tour of 1974 to South Africa. In his final tour, it was only Edwards’ brilliance that averted a solitary loss against Orange Free State by producing a miracle overhead pass to JJ Williams to scamper away and score. In the first Test, he dropped one of only four drop goals in his Test career. In 1971, at the Battle of Canterbury, he brushed off verbal threats from Alex ‘Grizz’ Wylie with characteristic chutzpah. In all, he played on 38 occasions for Lions touring teams, playing a part in 10 Tests and only being on the losing side twice. Still considered by many to be the greatest player of all time.
F – France
Yes, you read that right. As part of the bicentennial celebrations in France, the Lions were invited to play Les Bleus at a partisan Parc des Princes in October 1989, where the hosts put out a full-strength side, many of whom had played the All Blacks two years earlier at the inaugural Rugby World Cup final. Under Jacques Fouroux, France played with some verve. First Serge Blanco, with a delicious step off his right-foot left Scott Hastings upended and in the second-half Didier Camberabero ghosted over the line, but it was not enough for them to turn over a side that comprised 11 of the Test players who had been part of the Series win in Australia months earlier. Gavin Hastings was in inspired form, crossing two tries out wide and kicking with aplomb, while fly-half Rob Andrew excelled, taking a neat support line from a Jeremy Guscott break to go under the posts late in the game. Just for good measure, he clipped over a drop-goal to maintain a narrow distance between the sides. The final score, France 27 Lions 29.
G – Mike Gibson
As an indicator to Gibson’s longevity as a Lion, he played a remarkable 68 games for the touring team, playing 12 Tests. Along with Willie John McBride, he is the only Lion to have been selected on five Tours. In 1966, he was the first replacement in Test rugby in South Africa, replacing the injured Barry John. In 1971, Gibson formed part of a backline that was hard-wired to play with enterprise, as Gareth Edwards, Barry John, John Dawes and David Duckham and JPR Williams earnt the grudging respect of the New Zealanders. With the soft-skills to play at fly-half, robust defence, and an understated running game, Gibson established himself for further Tours in 1974 and 1977, where despite his physical powers waning, he played a full part in cajoling the test starters to greater heights. A practicing solicitor, the now retired Gibson is 77, and was awarded an MBE for his services to rugby.
H – Hastings brothers
Two of Scotland’s most celebrated sporting brothers Gavin and Scott Hastings played on 51 occasions together for Scotland and between them pulled on a Lions shirt on 31 occasions, appearing in eight Tests. Growing up alongside Graham and Ewan, Gavin said he didn’t know how his mother coped with such a rumbustious brood, but they were the only brothers to have played together in a Lions Test until the Youngs brothers locked arms in the Second Test in 2013. Gavin, the elder brother by two years, captained the 1993 Lions Tour to New Zealand, and played a full part in the 1989 Tour to Australia. With 192 points over his two Tours, Hastings Snr lies fourth in the all-time points list, and second in the Test list, with 66 points, one behind Jonny Wilkinson. As for Jnr, he played his part in Brisbane and Sydney as the Lions came back from 1-0 down in the Series to win, 2-1. Scott was also part of the touring party to New Zealand four years later.
I – Maro Itoje
Anyone lucky enough to be out in Wellington in the torrential rain of the second Test in 2017 will never forget the sound of thousands of Lions fans belting out ‘Oooh, Maro Itoje’ to the tune of the Seven Nation Army. Picked up from the Saracens dressing room, the cacophony of noise was warranted off the back performances by the then 22-year-old lock in the Test Series. In the third Test at Eden Park, partnered with Alun Wyn Jones, he was a menace; spoiling at the lineout, snaffling anything in Black in broken-field play and showing deft handling skills in heavy traffic to establish himself as one of the premier locks in the world game.
J – Martin Johnson
Legend has it that Jim Telfer wanted a skipper who could look down on Springbok skipper Gary Teichmann when it came to the coin toss. Step forward Martin Johnson, the perpetually furrow-browed, 6ft 7in England lock and a man who could curdle milk at 100 paces with a vacant stare. A three-time Lions tourist, Johnson replaced Wade Dooley in the touring party in New Zealand at 23 and had shed his L-Plates by the time he took in the highveld of Pretoria for the iconic Series. A lover of the physical side of rugby, Johnson was rarely seen without a black eye or facial cuts and he was the first player to be handed the captaincy of the Lions for a second-consecutive Tour in Australia in 2001. And despite the miracle of The Gabba, Johnson was unable to bend the Test Series to his iron-will as they went down 2-1 to the Wallabies.
K – Kruger National Park
Seeing lions in their natural habitat will be an option for the players and fans heading for South Africa next summer. At Kruger National Park, especially, there is the opportunity to see the Big Five in the 220 mile by 40 mile park but you may also catch Lions, who have been known to kick back and relax on the game reserve. In 1968 Gareth Edwards, Willie John McBride and Co spent a week’s R&R in the park and indulged in some high-spirited horseplay between the Wreckers and the Kippers (essentially your early-to-bed crew and the late-night owls). In 1974, the Lions returned to the National Park for a week’s socialising and modest training, after a present of 200 cigarettes and dozens of cans of beer from the hosts. Of course, Tours are under far more scrutiny now, but any trip to a game reserve must be treated with caution as Wales hooker Scott Baldwin found out when feeding a hungry Lion in Bloemfontein.
L – Jason Leonard
A tourist on three Tours (New Zealand 1993, South Africa 1997 and Australia 2001) in which he played on 23 occasions, including five Tests, Jason Leonard is still England’s most capped player (114 caps). The prop from Barking was last year voted in as Lions Chairman, after a term as RFU President, and Leonard will be entrusted with performing an ambassadorial role in South Africa. Known as the ‘Fun Bus’ during his playing days for his jocular disposition on Tour, Sir Ian McGeechan described him as ‘one of the best Lions I have ever come across’ for his Corinthian spirit in helping his rivals prepare for the Tests against the Springboks. McGeechan continued that Leonard, “to me, is the ultimate Lion”.
M – Colin Meads
It was the late, great Bill McClaren who said of Pinetree, “I look at Colin Meads and see a great big sheep farmer who carried the ball in his hands as though it was an orange pip.” A giant of a man in every sense, Colin Earl Meads faced the Lions across three decades, playing them in 1959, 1966 and in 1971, where he played the last of his then world record 55 Tests for the All Blacks in the 14-14 draw at Eden Park. A man who described himself as a ‘country hick’, was a farmer first who found himself wearing the Silver Fern and never shied away from the physical confrontation. He famously locked horns with Willie John McBride in 1963 and played 74 minutes against Eastern Transvaal with a broken arm. It was perhaps Welsh No. 8 and Lion Mervyn Davies who summed him up best. “In a land of rugby giants, he reigned supreme and is regarded by many as the greatest ever All Black. He was the flag-bearer of New Zealand manhood.” Meads passed away in 2017 aged 81.
N – Ninety-Nine call
One of the most infamous calls in rugby history. There is ambiguity over how this feted call became part of Lions mythology but what is unequivocal is when the call was made, all hell would break loose. In a similar vein to ‘I am Spartcus’, the common thinking was that if a whole team started swinging haymakers as a means of defending oneself, the referee couldn’t red card an entire team. Getting the Lions of the 1974 Tour to admit as much was far hazier. McBride is vague about whether he called it once, and some of the more lightweight backs, including Phil Bennett were a little hesitant to go piling into a bunch of oversized blonde Afrikaans. In a 22-Test tour, the third Test was the most hard-fought of all with JPR Williams, replete with headband, piling in from 50m and Bobby Windsor and Gordon Brown all involved in altercations against a pumped up Springbok side.
O – Brian O’Driscoll
Few players have a song named after them but in 2001, after a fresh-faced 21-year-old by the name of Brian O’Driscoll stepped a number of flailing Wallabies and scampered over from 60 metres, Waltzing O’ Driscoll was sung from the red-clad stands of The Gabba. O’Driscoll was one of the few players to be selected for four Tours and he had his fair share of thrills and spills over 12 years. In 2005, he was captain of the side out in New Zealand but his Tour was ended ignominiously by a tackle from Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu off the ball. O’Driscoll was back in the No. 13 shirt in 2009, where he played with resolve in the second Test, before finishing his Lions story back where it started, in Australia, where he played two Tests. With eight Lions test appearances, O’Driscoll is a bonafide Lions legend.
P – Graham Price
The loosehead still holds the record for the most Test appearances (12) by a front-row. There have been far bigger props to have faced the Lions than Price. He never had the physique of an Os du Randt, Carl Hayman or in 1980, Flippie van der Merwe; three combine-harvester sized individuals, but when you’re part of the VietGwent, along with Ray Prosser and Bobby Windsor, you could assuage that there is more than one way to win the battle. Price’s ability to get low to the ground against his larger, less mobile contemporaries was legendary. His old captain at Pontypool, Terry Cobner explained his appeal, “Pricey worked like a dog in training and ran like a stag in games”. A Welsh shot-put and discus champion at schoolboy level, Price had talent which he enhanced through a disciplined work ethic that put others to shame, with his lung-busting 80-metre support line of JJ Williams and subsequent try against France in 1975 a perfect example. Only Willie John McBride and Dickie Jeeps appeared in more Tests than the durable man of Gwent.
Q – Queensland
The Lions have had mixed fortunes in Australia’s third most populous state. Home of legendary Wallabies Tim Horan, John Eales and Michael Lynagh and of course the Great Barrier Reef, the Lions lost against Queensland 15-11 in 1971, ahead of the 1971 Tour to New Zealand playing hours after landing but they have also enjoyed some of their finest moments in the state’s capital, Brisbane. David Campese’s moment of madness on his try-line cost the Wallabies the second Test in Brisbane and in 2001, Brisbane saw one of the finest Lions performances ever as they beat Rod Macqueen’s men 29-13 with a Brian O’Driscoll wonder try and a toothy grin from Scott Quinnell lighting up the stadium, only to lose the Series 2-1. In 2013, the Lions were further soothed when George North returned Berrick Barnes’ speculative kick with interest and stepped round George Gregan to score one of the iconic Lions tries.
R – Sea of Red
The Lions fans make any tour. With more affordable air travel, the supporters have travelled in their droves to support the touring team, many saving up for four years for what is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At the Gabba, Australia were taken by surprise quite how many fans were clad in red. It was enough to make the first Test feel like a home game as the Lions ran away with the game. In the second Test in Melbourne, the hosts made sure there was thousands upon thousands of yellow hats for Wallaby fans to redress the balance. In New Zealand, over 20,000 supporters travelled and the din made in Wellington for the second Test in 2017 was said to have lifted the players.
S – Robert Seddon
The first captain of the Lions hailed from Salford and set sail in 1888 for a seven-month adventure organised by entrepreneurs Arthur Shrewsbury and Alfred Shaw. Sadly, Seddon, a powerful forward, never returned home. After 20 matches of the 35 fixture tour (which also included 19 games of Aussie Rules), he died at the age of 28 while sculling alone up the Hunter River in New South Wales and was buried in West Maitland, where 150 players from all over Australia turned up in club colours to pay their respects. After the majority of his fellow tourists broke down in tears on hearing the news, to honour Seddon, the Lions which was mainly made up of players from the North of England and the Scottish Borders, decided to continue the Tour in his memory and their star back and England cricket captain, Andrew ‘Drewy’ Stoddart took over the captain’s armband. In 2013, 125 years after his death, the was inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame.
T – Jim Telfer
Jim Telfer celebrated his 80th birthday this year and he retains an indefatigable spirit into his ninth decade. Telfer, who was a player of some repute with Scotland in the 1960s, playing as a No. 8, toured with the Lions in 1966 and 1968. He combined this alongside teaching chemistry at Galashiels Academy, and latterly headmaster of Hawick High School. However, for the modern generation, it is his long-term coaching partnership with Sir Ian McGeechan that has gone down in Lions folklore. In the ground-breaking Living with Lions documentary after the 1997 Tour, his ‘This is our Everest’ speech, is replayed time and time again to stir the emotions. Never short of a word on the Auld Enemy, Telfer is a one-off.
U – Roger Uttley
In the Seventies, when Wales were in their pomp, it took quite a player to dislodge a Welsh favourite from the Lions starting XV but one such player was Roger Uttley. A blindside flanker for the 1974 Invincibles Tour, he played in all four Tests alongside Mervyn Davies and Ireland’s Fergus Slattery. A Northerner from Blackpool, Uttley played his club rugby at Fylde and Gosforth before a teaching career brought him South and he ended his career at Wasps while teaching at Harrow. Uttley had played at lock for England and at 6ft 4in with remarkable strength and athleticism, Uttley was deemed to be the perfect physical specimen to go toe-to-toe with the ultra-physical Boks in the backrow. A winner of a Grand Slam in 1980 with England and team manager under Clive Woodward, Uttley was assistant coach on the 1989 Lions Tour of Australia and is as passionate about the Lions now, as he was in 1974.
V – Voyage
When many modern rugby fans think of the Lions voyage, across the world, they’ll think of Warren Gatland decked out in full naval regalia from the never-to-be-forgotten Sky Sports advert in 2013, but of course business-class air travel wasn’t a luxury the earliest tourists could count upon. While the 1888 Tour took 46-days of travel before a 249-day tour of Australia and New Zealand, on the 1899 Tour, the 22 squad members left Charing Cross station and headed to France where they caught the P&O liner the RMS Oceana at Marseille. The trip to Australia took five weeks where they travelled via the Red Sea. The squad, captained by Blackheath captain Matthew Mullineux hit the mainland at Perth, stopping off to acquaint themselves with the locals before travelling East to Adelaide on the train and continuing with the Tour.
W – Joost van der Westhuizen / Doddie Weir
The Lions has given a platform to men of unimpeachable character over the years and one such individual is Doddie Weir who celebrated his 50th birthday back in July. Doddie was the larger-than-life character who lit up the 1997 Tour of South Africa before a knee-injury ruled him out before the Test Series. An opponent on that Tour was Joost van der Westhuizen, the legendary Springbok scrum-half. Both men were to be diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in their forties. Joost set up a foundation to raise funds for MND research, sadly passing away after a five-year battle with the disease in 2017 aged 45. Thankfully, five years after his own diagnosis, Doddie is still with us and has raised over £4m for charity in that time where he has been a total inspiration throughout the rugby world. Two fine men.
X – X-Ray
There have been many brutal encounters between the Lions and their hosts over the last 128 years but in the professional era, none have been quite as wince-inducing at the second Test at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria 2009. After the Boks had edged the first Test 26-21, Peter de Villiers, the South Africa coach wanted the Boks to finish the job. While the Lions raced into a 19-8 lead, the overt physicality from the Springboks saw six Lions leave the field of play. Gethin Jenkins had to have surgery on a broken jaw incurred in a clash of heads with Bryan Habana, Adam Jones dislocated his shoulder after a challenge from Bakkie Botha. Brian O’Driscoll left the field with concussion in the second half, while Jamie Roberts, Man of the Series, had to leave the field with a sprained wrist. The final player not to make it to the final whistle was Tommy Bowe who departed with an elbow strain. Ronan O’Gara also finished the game with a nasty gash over his eye. Master of the understatement, Doctor James Robson said, “as far as the casualty list goes, it is not something I’m happy with.”
Y – Youngs brothers
Ben Youngs and his older brother Tom became the first siblings since Gavin and Scott Hastings to start in a Lions Test Series in Melbourne. The duo from Norfolk, who played their mini-rugby at Holt RFC, played their full-part in a 2-1 Series win. In 2017, the scenario was very different. Tom’s wife Tiffany had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ben was picked for his second Tour but in a show of true brotherly love, chose to relinquish his place so he could spend time with his family at a distressing time. They exemplified rugby’s close family values. Fortunately, the story had a happy ending when in 2018, the Youngs family announced that Tiffany was in remission and would make a full recovery. It was a Lions miracle that lifted the world of rugby.
Z – Simon Zeeeebooo!
Some amateur traditions are maintained, even at the elite end of the sport and in 2013, a Kangaroo Court was held for the Lions in Australia. Never one to shy away from a bit of fun, Simon Zebo, the Ireland wing, was asked by judges, Richard Hibbard and Geoff Parling to phone his then coach at Munster Rob Penney and ask to be captain for the coming season, replacing ‘Deadly’ Doug Howlett. Polite, but highly dubious from the off, Penney’s suspicions were realised when the entire squad burst out into a fit of giggles and a viral classic was assured. Another ‘Z’ is Zimbabwe. The Lions 64-year association playing in what was known as Rhodesia between 1910 and 1974. Famous players to have come from Zimbabwe include Tendei Mtawarira, former Springbok skippers Gary Teichmann and Bobby Skinstad, the ex-Springbok captain. Other internationals to have been born there include David Pocock, David Denton and Exeter Chiefs powerhouses, Don Armand and Dave Ewers.
This article is part of the British & Irish Lions Freelance Writers Project.