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Irish winger Tony O'Reilly of the British & Irish Lions.
Irish winger Tony O'Reilly of the British & Irish Lions.

Rugby union: Pride of Lions for a select few players

Representing the side is an honour, but a daunting and sometimes thankless task a long way from home, writes John Mehaffey.

Representing the side is an honour, but a daunting and sometimes thankless task a long way from home, writes John Mehaffey

A special romance still accompanies the British & Irish Lions on their four-yearly pilgrimages across the equator despite an annual schedule of rugby union Tests fast approaching saturation point.

One factor is the rarity of a Lions' visit at a time when the world's top teams play each other on a regular basis.

This year's trip to Australia is part of a 12-year cycle during which the Lions visit the three southern hemisphere giants in turn.

Another is the enduring appeal of a side who represent four countries, including divided Ireland, which unites on the rugby field, combining in a common cause against distant opponents.

"I have always maintained that Lions' tours to New Zealand and South Africa were a bit like going off [to a medieval battle] or soldiering with Wellington in the Peninsular campaign," Clem Thomas, the rugged Welsh flanker who toured South Africa with the 1955 Lions, said in his official history of the Lions.

The 19th-century Lions' tours were designed to spread rugby's popularity to the colonies where a fierce physical game devised in the English public schools had an immediate appeal to the tough immigrants adjusting to new lands.

The first Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand, in 1888, was a curiosity in that its three organisers - Arthur Shrewsbury, Alfred Shaw and James Lillywhite - were famous English cricketers and professional entrepreneurs.

The team contained 19 Englishmen and one representative each from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. As part of their remit they were required to play Victorian rules (now Australian rules) football matches in the state of Victoria. The team were struck by tragedy when their captain, Robert Seddon, was drowned in a river.

Further tours followed to South Africa and Australia before the turn of the century, by which stage the game in New Zealand and South Africa had evolved to such an extent that the pupils were now giving lessons to the masters.

In the modern era, four tours and two men, one from the Irish Republic and the other from Northern Ireland, formed the core of the Lions' legend. They all hail from a time when the South African Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks appeared to have a stranglehold on world rugby.

By the midpoint of the 20th century, South Africa seemed the final frontier. They had last been beaten by a Lions' team in 1896, had not lost a home series in the 20th century and since 1906 had won every test in the British Isles or France.

But in 1955 the Springboks were shocked by a British Lions side, who in one of the greatest matches ever played, won the first Test 23-22 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg before a rugby record crowd of 95,000.

The series was eventually drawn 2-2 after the Lions had lit up the veld with their extraordinary back play, guided by the genius of Welshman Cliff Morgan at fly-half and the tactical brilliance of England's Jeff Butterfield in the centres.

On the wing, a 19-year-old Irishman called Tony O'Reilly, with bright auburn hair, film-star good looks and an imposing physique, was an instant sensation, scoring a record 16 tries in 15 matches.

Four years later, in the face of equally brutal physical challenges in New Zealand, O'Reilly scored 17 tries in as many games, a record unlikely to be beaten.

O'Reilly later became a immensely wealthy multinational entrepreneur, described by Henry Kissinger as a "Renaissance man in business".

On the rugby field his fellow Irishman and close friend Andy Mulligan said he possessed "the build of a farmer but topped by the head of a barrister and tailed by the hands of a pianist and the feet of a Nureyev".

New Zealand won the series 3-1 but by the time of the fourth Test at Eden Park, the only one won by the Lions, the home crowd were chanting for the visitors and their dazzling backline.

In part, the response was a recognition of the wretched ill luck the Lions had suffered through injuries and dubious refereeing.

But it was also a realisation that rugby played the Lions' way was a much more attractive spectacle than the grim win-at-all costs approach of the home side and could be just as effective.

O'Reilly was born in Ballsbridge in the fashionable south side of Dublin.

Willie John McBride, the greatest Lion of all, hails from Toomebridge in County Antrim.

McBride, a raw-boned uncompromising lock always instantly recognisable with his distinctive white head band, had already been on three losing Lions' tours, an experience he had not enjoyed, when he was named in the 1971 team to tour New Zealand.

His reward was to lead a pack who held their own against the All Blacks, led by Colin Meads, in front of probably the best back line ever assembled. Wales was leading a revolution in world rugby and the feats of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams, accompanied by the incomparable Ulsterman Mike Gibson, will not soon be forgotten.

Three years later, McBride captained an unbeaten Lions side in South Africa on his fifth and final tour and this time it was a mighty pack who first subdued then humiliated the Springboks at their own game.

For a brief, heady period the Lions ruled the rugby world.

Professional rugby, introduced in 1995, threw up new challenges and fundamental questions, including the relevance of the Lions. The southern hemisphere, in Thomas's words, were again "simply light years ahead" with each of the three nations winning one of the first three World Cups.

The 1997 Lions, led by the scowling English giant Martin Johnson and coached by the Scot Ian McGeechan, whose only rival as the greatest of the Lions' coach is the Welshman Carywn James who guided the 1971 side, gave the perfect riposte.

They beat the world champion South Africans 2-1 before capacity crowds in their own backyard and the Lions future was assured. "The three southern hemisphere nations both want and need the Lions," said Davies, who managed the 2009 Lions in South Africa. "Not just because of the magic of the fixtures and the history but also because of the massive boost it gives to their game."

The Lions will endure as long as the game they grace and their popularity has remained undimmed, although inevitably the sheer exoticism of the teams in the amateur days with their mixture of social classes as well as nationalities has vanished.

Their visits are proper old-fashioned tours, allowing fans outside the main centres a chance to watch their heroes. Good players, stimulated by the calibre of their teammates and the standard of the opposition, become great and forge imperishable reputations.

"To tour with the Lions is the supreme prize," McBride said. "To be one of the best 30 players in the four countries and, hopefully, to be one of the best 15 and playing in the Test team is still the ultimate challenge."

* Reuters

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