2021 was a year like no other in the history of The British & Irish Lions.
Against the odds and amid a global pandemic, the Tour to South Africa was successfully staged despite Warren Gatland’s men being denied the support of their famous Sea of Red.
The tourists had to overcome many challenges along the way before almost matching their 1997 predecessors, ultimately losing the series 2-1 to the reigning world champions.
But it was also a significant year for the world’s greatest touring team off the pitch as well, including the announcement of a Women’s Lions feasibility steering group.
And with the countdown already well underway for the 2025 Tour to Australia and the return of supporters, here’s a look back at what has been an unforgettable 12 months.
JANUARY TO MARCH
The year started with tributes to two Lions greats, Wales international Haydn Morris and England No.8 Alan Ashcroft, who were part of the 1955 and 1959 Tours respectively.
Former Lions and England hooker John Pullin – a tourist in 1968 and 1971 – also passed away in February, along with 1989 tourist Dave Egerton and 1959 tourist Phil Horrocks-Taylor.
February also saw Stewart’s Melville RFC crowned the first Canterbury Club of the Month for the Lions Origin Club’s incredible fundraising effort to support Wooden Spoon.
Twin brothers William and Thomas Graves, both age 11, came up with the idea to turn old rugby balls into pencil cases and wallets which they could sell to help the lockdown-hit charity.
Meanwhile, Chase Distillery and Royal London were both announced as Lions partners, with the latter becoming the ‘principal partner’ of the Women’s Lions programme.
RAF Rugby Union became the second Lions Origin Canterbury Club of the Month award winners in March, in recognition of their work introducing rugby to disadvantaged communities.
Every year, the RAF Rugby 7s Spitfires travel nearly 5,000 miles across the world to coach and play rugby in India as part of a Foreign & Commonwealth Office outreach programme.
RAF Rugby Union named Canterbury Club of the Month
Working with Indian charity Khelo Rugby for more than a decade, the team coaches hundreds of children from underprivileged backgrounds and helps spread the rugby gospel.
And March concluded with the Lions and SA Rugby confirming that they were aligned on delivering the Castle Lager Lions Series in South Africa in the scheduled playing window.
APRIL TO JUNE
As preparations for the 2021 Tour stepped up in April, Warren Gatland confirmed his coaching team would be Gregor Townsend, Robin McBryde, Steve Tandy and Neil Jenkins.
It was the first time Scotland head coach Townsend had been named as part of a Lions coaching team, having previously toured South Africa triumphantly as a player in 1997.
Fellow Scotland coach Tandy and former Wales assistant coach McBryde were also newcomers, while Welsh kicking coach Jenkins was set for his sixth Tour as either a player or coach.
Lions coaching call-up ‘means more’ to Townsend than 1997 selection
“It’s a really strong group and I’m excited to see what we can achieve together – I think we’ll all complement each other well in South Africa,” said Gatland at the time of the announcement.
Jersey was also announced as the host for a 10-day training camp for the tourists, which would be held just before the Lions’ Test match against Japan at BT Murrayfield in June.
Legendary Lions captain John Dawes passed away in April at the age of 80, having been the only man to date to skipper the tourists to a series victory in New Zealand in 1971.
May started with announcement of Alun Wyn Jones as the Lions captain, with the Wales legend returning to South Africa for his fourth Tour 12 years after first facing the Springboks.
That news was swiftly followed by the much-anticipated squad announcement as Gatland’s 37-man touring party was revealed by Lions chairman Jason Leonard live on May 6.
The Tour schedule was also confirmed, with all eight matches to be played in Gauteng or Cape Town to minimise the risks of disruption that could be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, Laureus Sport for Good was named as the first-ever Lions Series Global Charity Partner, raising funds to support rugby-based community sports programmes in Britain & Ireland, South Africa and Japan which tackle social issues facing young people.
Coleraine Rugby Club crowned Canterbury Club of the Month
May concluded with Coleraine Rugby Club being crowned the latest Lions Origin Canterbury Club of the Month, marking the Northern Irish club’s 100th anniversary in style.
In June, the Lions arrived in Jersey for their training camp before taking on the Brave Blossoms for the first time in their history in Edinburgh, where the tourists prevailed 28-10.
But the result was overshadowed by the the news that captain Jones and Justin Tipuric had been ruled out of the Tour, with Adam Beard and Josh Navidi called up in their place.
JULY TO SEPTEMBER
After flying out to South Africa at the end of June, the Lions turned their attention to their opening Tour match against the Emirates Lions as Stuart Hogg was named captain.
“For me it’s a huge, huge honour. As a kid growing up you watch all the different Lions DVDs, videos and I had the dream of representing them one day,” said Hogg.
The curtain-raiser ended in a perfect 56-14 victory as Josh Adams scored four second-half tries, with Louis Rees-Zammit, Hamish Watson, Ali Price and Gareth Davies also scoring.
Lions stage second-half fightback to win first Test
A Covid-disrupted build-up to the second Tour match against Cell C Sharks proved to only be a minor setback for the tourists Duhan van der Merwe and Adams scored hat-tricks in a 54-7 win.
Another date against the Cell C Sharks followed, replacing the previously scheduled match against the Bulls, with Jamie George named as captain for the second meeting.
And while the tourists had to come from behind twice, braces from Tadhg Beirne and Anthony Watson helped the Lions eventually ease to a 71-31 win in Pretoria.
The Lions suffered their first defeat of the Tour to South Africa A before bouncing back in their final match before the Test series, beating DHL Stormers 49-3 as Marcus Smith made his debut having been called up a week earlier.
There was also an incredible return to the Tour for Alun Wyn Jones, who made a miraculous recovery from the dislocated shoulder he suffered against Japan to fly out to South Africa.
Jones came off the bench against Stormers to prove his fitness before being named in the starting line-up for the opening Test – his tenth successive Test cap for the Lions.
The story of the 2021 Tour
His presence proved a massive boost to the tourists as Gatland’s men recovered from a 12-3 half-time deficit to go 1-0 up in the series thanks to Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try and Dan Biggar’s boot.
But despite leading 9-6 at the break in the second Test, the Lions ended July with a 27-9 defeat as the Springboks gave the tourists a taste of their own medicine to send the series to a decider.
And 12 years after landing the winning penalty in the second Test in 2009, Morne Steyn came off the bench to kick South Africa to a dramatic 19-16 win to clinch a 2-1 series triumph.
September then saw the Lions’ first-ever online charity auction raise more than £70,000 as iconic items from the official archive attracted bidders from all around the globe.
OCTOBER TO DECEMBER
October began with the announcement of the formation of a Women’s Lions feasibility steering group, with the 13-person group chaired by three-time tourist Ieuan Evans.
Made up of experienced administrators from across professional rugby, business executives, as well as former internationals from the world of sport, the group is tasked with looking into the feasibility of establishing a Women’s Lions team.
“We are excited to have put together such a stellar list of individuals who I know will add value to this project,” said Ben Calveley, managing director of The British & Irish Lions.
Women’s Lions feasibility study group announced
“I believe a Women’s Lions team is a huge opportunity, but there are a number of challenges to consider when looking to create a successful women’s set-up.
“Financial viability, suitable opposition and appropriate scheduling in the women’s rugby calendar will all need rigorous analysis, research and careful consideration.”
The month ended with the passing of another Lions great as two-time tourist Sandy Carmichael, one of the bravest and fairest players to pull ever on the jersey, died at the age of 77.
The prop was part of the squads who toured New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa three years later, maintaining an amazing record of never being on the losing side for the Lions.
He also scored his sole Lions try against Wellington on a 1971 Tour which was brought to a premature end for the Scot in a stormy clash against Canterbury.
In November, three 2021 Lions were nominated for World Rugby Awards as Maro Itoje was selected for the Men’s 15s Player of the Year gong while Louis Rees-Zammit and Marcus Smith were recognised in the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year prize.
Four Lions named in World Rugby’s Men’s 15s Team of the Year
Tributes were also paid in November to 1955 tourist Ernie Michie and two-time tourist Ray McLoughlin, with the latter touring with the Lions in 1966 and 1971.
Four Lions were named in World Rugby’s 2021 Men’s 15s Dream Team of the Year at the start of December as Wyn Jones, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje and Stuart Hogg were all recognised.
And the year concluded with the Lions’ charity partner The Atlas Foundation launching their Christmas appeal designed to raise funds for disadvantaged children all around the world.