Nick Popplewell reflects on 1993 Tour

I began my career at Gorey Rugby Club in Wexford and from there got all the way to playing for the Lions in New Zealand. [more]

Nick Popplewell reflects on 1993 Tour

Loosehead prop Nick Popplewell was one of just two Ireland players initially selected for the 1993 British & Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand.

But while his national team were going through a tough period, Popplewell thrived with the Lions earning a spot in the Test side and starting all three matches in the 2-1 series defeat.

As part of a new series for The British & Irish Lions, the former Ireland prop reflects on his experiences in New Zealand 30 years later.

I began my career at Gorey Rugby Club in Wexford and from there got all the way to playing for the Lions in New Zealand.

After the second Test in Wellington, I remember going out in a bar to see 20 lads from Gorey who had all flown out, basically to support me and support the Lions. That was pretty special.

At the time of that Tour, Ireland had been underperforming so when it came to selection in 1993, the general view was that somebody had to be picked but no one other than Simon Geoghegan was really putting their hands up.

British & Irish Lion Profile #654: Nick Popplewell

He was our one world-class player, and for everyone else, you probably needed to hope for an injury and would only be going as a tourist. There is nothing wrong with that, but there was never a thought that we would be contending for a Test place.

Then, on the final day of the Five Nations that year, we beat England at Lansdowne Road, thumped them in fact. To say it was timely would be an understatement, the Lions selectors were meeting the next day!

That day, you have to think some of the England players in the back of their mind were thinking ‘I don’t want to get injured before the Lions Tour’. We didn’t give a hoot because none of us were going to go so we tore into them, they were just slightly complacent maybe and it was one of those few days where it went right for us, and it went right for us for the 80 minutes, where normally it might go right for 60 minutes and then it would go wrong.

In the end, Mick Galwey and I were selected, and were soon heading over to England to get suited and booted, as well as doing some fitness tests at the centre of excellence that the England boys used to use.

It was still the amateur era so selection for the Lions meant it was too bad for your employer. Poor old John Rochford was my boss, he has passed away now. I was gone for three months and he had to get someone else in while still paying my wages – they were different times. My call-up came out of the blue but he was a rugby nut so he was thrilled, he basically covered me while I was away.

When we linked up with the rest of the Lions, the good thing with Geech (Sir Ian McGeechan, who coached the Tour), was that it was a clean sheet. It was a bit intimidating at first, but we did the fitness tests and myself and Gaillimh kept up with everyone. We thought ‘Ok, we’re not that far behind’.

I was fortunate because I got straight into the Saturday side when we got out there, then it was up to me to stay in it.

The build-up matches were like Tests, you could not coast at all, or use games to test things out. The opposition did not hold back either. It was not dirty, but they had people trying to get into the Test side, so it got quite brutal at times.

I was picked for the first Test, and it was a game where we did not play particularly well as far as I remember it. Even so, we felt we had done enough to win it, only for them to get a late penalty on a call that we disagreed with. It was before TMOs and we probably look back with rose-tinted glasses but we were not happy with it – the Lions lost 20-18.

That meant the second Test was do-or-die. The selectors made some changes and I found myself as the lone Irishman in a pack with seven Englishmen.

Jason Leonard came in at tighthead, having been my rival for the loosehead jersey before then. We were very competitive so, even though Jason is a really nice guy and a good friend, I would have hardly spoken to him until we were selected in that second Test together. I thought I was going out there as the number two or three in the pecking order so I was not going to waste the opportunity, I tore into everything.

We actually started the second Test quite badly, I think Gavin Hastings spilt a ball over the line and they scored. We were up against it a few minutes in, but we played very well collectively and ended up winning quite comfortably – the Lions won 20-7.

There was a sense of relief after that second Test because if we had lost that one, the Tour was over. We put a huge amount of effort in and probably suffered for it in the third Test. It was a week too far for us. New Zealand were a strong unit, you look at their team and there was quality everywhere. They were as professional as one could be in the amateur era. We did not go into the third Test thinking we were going to lose it, but it was one battle too much.

That second Test was in Wellington, where their record is not great. The third was in Auckland and it was a long bloody day, let’s put it that way – the All Blacks won 30-13.

While we did not win the series, that Tour still had a profound impact on me and my career. I became very pally with Rob Andrew on that Tour. The beauty of playing with the Lions is that I went from playing in an Ireland side that was underperforming and then I found myself playing with some of the best players in the world. It made up my mind at that point that I’d like to finish my career really trying to push myself. To do that, it meant playing in England. I joined Wasps for a year and then went professional and went to Newcastle, and it was Rob who convinced me to join him up there.


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That was what was special about the Lions. You found yourself surrounded by people who were more competent than you, so you could really zone in on doing your core job and a little bit more.

It really changed things for me and was probably my highlight of the whole experience.

Nick Popplewell played 48 times for Ireland between 1989 and 1998 and started all three Tests for the Lions in New Zealand in 1993. He was part of the Newcastle Falcons team that won the 1997-98 Premiership title alongside 1993 Lions tourists Rob Andrew and Tony Underwood, as well as Inga Tuigamala, who played for the All Blacks in the series. After retiring, Popplewell returned to Ireland and he lives in Wexford where he works as an estate agent.

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