Once labelled ‘The Ultimate Lion’ by none other than Sir Ian McGeechan, Jason Leonard understands exactly what it takes to be a successful British & Irish Lions tourist.
A three-time tourist, the World Cup-winning England prop first donned the famous red jersey on the 1993 Tour of New Zealand and played in the second and third Tests.
But it was on the famous 1997 Tour to South Africa where Leonard’s attitude, despite only appearing off the bench in the first Test, earned the respect of McGeechan.
His contribution off the pitch was considered just as important as his impact on it, ensuring that the chosen props had everything they needed to perform in the Test matches.
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Leonard also came off the bench in two Tests against Australia in 2001, finishing his Lions playing career with a total of 23 appearances for the tourists and five Test caps.
Now British & Irish Lions chairman and still a self-described Lions “die-hard”, Leonard is charged with overseeing this year’s highly anticipated 2021 Tour to South Africa.
And when asked what makes a great tourist, Leonard explained the importance of a message about the Lions’ ethos delivered by McGeechan on his first Tour almost two decades ago.
“I’ve always considered Sir Ian McGeechan to be the greatest Lion actually, he’s been there as a player, coach, manager, he’s such a great guy in that aspect,” said Leonard – Lion #644.
“I don’t know exactly what it is but as a Lions player, you’ve got to be sensible, you’ve got to be willing, and I’ll always remember Sir Ian McGeechan on my first ever Lions Tour.
“In New Zealand in 1993, we all walked in for the first team meeting and, you do it by habit, I walked in with all the English guys and the Welsh players all walked in together.
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“It was the same for the Irish guys and Scottish guys and you sit in your own little groups, and Sir Ian McGeechan just said, ‘Guys, you are British & Irish Lions now’.
“He said, ‘When you walk in through this door, you’re not an Englishman, you’re not a Scotsman, you’re not an Irishman or Welshman, you’re a British & Irish Lion’.
“He told us to go back out and come back in as British & Irish Lions and that had impact on me because again he’s completely right, you’re not an Englishman.
“You might be a very proud Englishman but when you’re there you are representing everybody, you’re not just an Englishman, you’re a British & Irish Lion.
“That was a big moment for me, that was quite powerful. I think what defines the Lions, and its uniqueness, is giving players a chance every four years to come together for one goal.
“Knowing more than likely that that group of players will never ever, ever get the chance to Tour again – not every single one of them, you might have five, six or ten that went on the Tour before.
“You are never going to have all the same players to follow that Tour four years later so it’s a unique moment in time in that aspect, it really is – that’s what makes it so special.”
Leonard added that preparations are coming along well for this year’s Tour to South Africa, where the Lions will take on the reigning world champions once again in their own backyard.
The Lions last toured there in 2009 as the Springboks secured a thrilling 2-1 series victory, with the tourists claiming a memorable 28-9 triumph in the final Test in Johannesburg.
But it is the 1997 series featuring Leonard which is remembered most fondly by all those who were there, watched it at the time or have done so since in the Living With Lions documentary.
And Leonard admits the challenge this time around could be the toughest yet for whoever is selected by Warren Gatland to face the Springboks in the three-match Test series.
“For me it’s the pinnacle within our game [to represent the Lions], it really is. Whether that’s as a player or an administrator, it’s something I’m really honoured to be able to do,” he said.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge against South Africa, maybe more so than I think in 1997. They were World Cup winners when we faced them in ’97 and the same in 2009 again.
“Then they won the World Cup this time so representing the British & Irish Lions is huge and facing the current reigning world champions is the ultimate contest.”