When Ugo Monye is asked about his time in the famous red jersey his thoughts instantly – and very understandably – turn to the third Test of the 2009 Tour to South Africa.
Not only did the England back get his second Test cap, he went on to score the iconic, match-clinching 70m interception try as The British & Irish Lions finished the Tour in style.
While the 28-9 victory in Johannesburg was not enough to rescue the series, it was a fitting reward for the tourists’ efforts and handed the Springboks their first defeat at Ellis Park in eight years.
Having been unable to convert two high-profile chances in the first Test and been left out of the second Test, Lion #767 Monye achieved redemption with his marvellous score in the series finale.
But rather than gravitating towards his lung-busting try, it is the post-match huddle with his fellow Lions teammates, coaches and staff that Monye remembers most fondly from 2009.
“If I was to dial it down to one moment – and honestly there were so many, community stuff, going out to Soweto and the townships, going on safari, just being a Lion – I’d say it was the huddle that we had on the pitch after the third Test,” he said.
“It just represented so many different things. To finish the Tour on the right note was so important for us as a group of players, for what the Lions was and actually for the supporters, not just the travelling ones but everyone back home as well.
“To be in that huddle and looking around, I remember looking up and seeing Jamie Roberts – who was man of the series – he had tears in his eyes.
“He deserved to play in that game but that second Test was so brutal and I think we lost a third of our starting Test team in that second Test alone, so seeing him balling his eyes out was unbelievable.
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“Just to get everyone in that centre circle, not just the players but everyone who had contributed to what was a really special Tour – not the result we wanted but it was incredibly special.
“That for me encapsulated exactly what the Lions is, what it stands for. It stands for all the things we would like to see more in our society: togetherness, putting personal agendas to one side.
“It’s uniting everyone in Great Britain and Ireland, coming together for one common cause, whether you are able to be a part of that in the Test matches or the guys who don’t normally get on the pitch.”
Monye remembers that the emotions swirling around in that post-match huddle started before the final Test had even started, with Warren Gatland delivering a rousing message to the men in red.
“We had a few people contribute to the huddle,” he said. “Geech [Sir Ian McGeechan] was head coach but it actually started in the changing rooms. Just to put it into context, I remember Gats talking to us in the dressing room.
“He picked up Martyn Williams’ shirt and said, ‘Today this is going to be the last day he plays in this jersey, he will go out and do it justice – I know that for a fact that this is the last time he is going to wear the jersey, for some of you, you don’t have a clue’.
“That’s the beauty and insecurity of sport that every time you do go out, you have to put your all into it because you just don’t know if you will get another shot.
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“We knew it was the last game of the Tour and fortunately some of those tourists went on to play in 2013, some even in 2017, but that’s the emotion that Warren Gatland was trying to transmit into us before we went out onto the pitch.
“‘This is your last opportunity’, ‘Do something special’, How do you want to be remembered?’ – and then to fast forward that 80 minutes and get the result. It wasn’t the overall result we wanted, we wanted to win the series, but it was unbelievably tight.
“I think we came up against one of, if not the best, South African side there has probably ever been. I think they had beaten New Zealand three times that year, Tri Nations champions, world champions, they were just incredible.
“We were close but just not good enough. Sport is incredible and it is a game of opportunities – two brilliant sides, we could have won it, they could have lost it.
“They ended up winning and deservedly so but we felt we deserved more so to win that third Test match and get everyone together, it’s important for the brand of the British & Irish Lions.”
Monye went from an uncapped reserve on the bench for the England Saxons to Lions starter in just one year, scoring four tries in three starts in the warm-up matches to make the Test team.
His fairytale journey experienced a bump in the road in Durban, however, where the winger had a try denied in either half – first by the TMO and then by replacement Morne Steyn.
But after being sidelined for the 28-25 defeat in the second Test, Monye was given a chance to redeem himself in the final match of the Tour – an opportunity he grabbed with both hands.
A first-half brace from Shane Williams had already given the Lions a commanding 15-6 lead at the break before Monye produced his moment of magic on 54 minutes.
“Shaun Edwards drummed into us that he wanted a hard press, defensive line and wingers are really key to that so when I came off the line my intention was to make a man on ball hit,” he said.
“Then you have to adjust and make a read and I got there probably quicker than I anticipated, so it was a case of, ‘I think I can get this’. The hard thing is as a winger, you’re either a hero or a villain.
“I don’t touch that ball and it’s probably a penalty try and I’m in the sin bin. I fumble it, I drop it and that’s that – all of a sudden momentum has changed and you’re thinking, ‘Not again, not again’.
“So as soon as I caught it, I knew it was a try. I knew I would score, I didn’t think anyone could catch me to be honest. I was in my prime, I suffered from a bit of a hamstring strain in the week but I had a head start.
“In my mind, any winger will tell you, I knew I would score if I put my head down and sprinted for about 30-40 metres, no one would catch me. I looked back and I started celebrating from the 22.
“I was just easing in for the try, it was really nice. You very rarely get an opportunity to enjoy the moment you score the try, you often try and sneak into the corner or fend off players.
“Seven seconds feels like a lifetime. It was nuts. I picked up a rugby ball aged 13, that’s my journey into playing rugby at school, and it took me 13 years to play for the Lions and score that try.
“That try, all in all probably took about seven seconds, so 13 years’ worth of rugby for those seven seconds but if I had to do those 13 years again to get those seven seconds back I would do it over and over again. It’s one of the most unique and special moments of my rugby career.”