“When your name is called out, when you receive a letter, when the coach tells you on the sidelines of the pitch that you’re going on a Lions Tour, in rugby terms you’ve made it,” says Matt Dawson – a warm smile spreading across his face as he reminisces on the best summer of his life.
“There is nowhere to go, and in very, very few walks of our lives do we ever get to somewhere where there is nowhere left to go.”
Dawson’s British & Irish Lions career is a storied one. He is part of a very exclusive club of players who have toured on at least three separate occasions but it’s the 1997 Tour that will always stand out. It was the summer that changed his life.
Dawson arrived in South Africa with only a couple of England caps and was largely unknown. He was a left-wing selection, according to some, by Sir Ian McGeechan – the head coach of both the Lions and Dawson’s club, Northampton Saints.
He was picked as the third-choice scrum-half, behind Rob Howley and Austin Healey, but – in keeping with the unpredictable vibe of the entire Tour – he made the No.9 jersey his own in a series that turned Lions into legends.
British & Irish Lions profile: Matt Dawson
Dawson went on two more Tours, to Australia in 2001 and New Zealand in 2005, while he was also part of the England World Cup-winning team of 2003. But 1997 will always hold a special place in his heart.
“If we were going to Australia and we weren’t going to the world champions, if we thought we had a chance and the media thought we had a chance and the opposition actually thought that the Lions had a chance, the dynamic might have been a little bit different,” he said.
“But all of a sudden you had world-class players, lots of egos, players from four different countries coming together and realistically, we’re going up against a team that was so much better than us.
“This was a watershed moment for the Lions, the Lions may never happen again if we get written off here. And we all took that personally, we all thought that is not going to happen.”
After an injury to Howley, Dawson was handed the starting jersey for the first Test in Cape Town and delivered one of the moments of the series.
With seven minutes left, the Lions were 16-15 down when No.8 Tim Rodber – tired of being continually tackled hard by Ruben Kruger, Andre Venter and Springboks captain Gary Teichmann – signalled for Dawson to pick the ball up from the back of a ruck and go ‘solo’.
A to Z of The British & Irish Lions
The South African defence were not prepared for what came next as Dawson drifted to the outside, threw a scarcely believable dummy and sprinted freely to the tryline.
“I’m not sure Tim knew what he was doing for me when he called ‘solo’,” he said.
“It is absolutely ridiculous and I have Rob Howley to thank. He was so good, the Springboks would never have let him get away with that, because they would have been ready. But this little up-start of an English scrum-half didn’t pose much of a threat.
“Our focus was always going to be that first Test, to win it and whatever it takes. We needed to come up with something that the South Africans just couldn’t work out.
“Defensively, we were brilliantly organised and we played with this pace and this intensity that moved South Africa around and they got a little bit tired.
“So, we knew we had those, we had the tactics and then it gives you this enormous sense of confidence and belief and bearing in mind the types of characters that were on that trip.
“From a Lions perspective, as soon as the chest is being pumped of Keith Wood, Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jeremy Guscott, Scott Gibbs, big, big characters, they are even more pumped up to say we’ve got this and we were a tough act to beat up.”
South Africa, who were crowned world champions just two years before, prided themselves on a physical gameplan. But they could not outmuscle the Lions, who were resilient and refused to be beaten.
In the second Test, it was Dawson who again helped supply the winning moment as he set-up Guscott’s winning drop-goal. Watching it back now still gives him goosebumps.
“The final whistle in Durban was a close to a dream as you can get,” he said.
“I think because of the way the game had gone and the amount of pressure we were wonder, when Jenks [Neil Jenkins] kicked it out it completely blew me away.”
Dawson scored another try in the third Test but the Springboks rallied to win, making it largely forgotten. However, his profile soared once he was home.
England found a space for him and he went on to win 77 caps, including nine as captain, while he won the 2003 Six Nations Grand Slam and the World Cup. A year later, he started a 17-year stint as a captain on A Question of Sport.
Now a rugby pundit and TV personality, he is one of the most recognisable faces in British sport. And he can chart it all back to the year he first lived a dream.
“I think the uniqueness of the Lions and the uniqueness of the concept of bringing four nations together to go and take on the best in the world, from a very early age you are aware that the Lions are aspirational,” he said.
“But it seems too ridiculously far away, to think you could be one of the elite players in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. It is the pinnacle. “