It is certainly up there as one of the best honours in the game and tomorrow, Thursday 6th May 2021, the British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa this summer will be announced. There will be a number of players on tender hooks today at the prospect of being included in the touring party and some players tomorrow will receive crushing blows at not being selected. But imagine how those selected for the tour will feel?
I was a double Lion and toured to Australia in 1989 and to New Zealand in 1993. Every 4 years just before the tour squad is announced I still get that sense of excitement although the way I was informed, by 1st class letter is in stark contrast to how the players will receive their selections news tomorrow. More about that later.
Playing for the Lions v Northland 1993 - Stuart Barnes couldn't keep up with me!
Both my tours with the Lions had a profound effect on me for different reasons. In 1989, I was part of a squad that came from behind to win the test series 2 tests to 1 and we were unbeaten in all other games over an 8 week tour to Australia. In that wonderful amateur era we had a blast both on and off the pitch forging unforgettable life-long friendships with our fellow tourists.
In 1993 I had to return home 5 weeks into the tour having smashed my face in a tackle against Otago’s Josh Kronfeld. It was a week before the first test and I was in contention for a test place but that day the Lions succumbed to their first defeat on tour and my tour and face crumbled in injury.
I had to have surgery on my broken jaw and cheekbone following the match in an operation that took over 4.5 hours! A week later, the Lions lost the opening test match against the All Backs by 20 points to 18 courtesy of a dubious penalty award and it was slotted by Grant Fox in the final few minutes of the match. It was cruel luck for the tourists and although the team went on to win the second test, a number of players lost heart in the tour. With no way of playing themselves into the test team the tourists lost to Auckland and Hawkes Bay prior to that 2nd test victory.
Then in the mid-week match prior to the final test match, Waikato inflicted a hammering on the mid-week team by 38-10. Following that match many of the press questioned the attitude of the players and their commitment to the jersey. With only 2 wins in the last 8 matches of the tour the results put a lot of strain on the players and management.
I could only look on from afar having returned home after the first test and I felt strangely detached from proceedings, unable to help with the rift that had been created between the test team and the remaining squad members.
Interestingly enough, the 1989 tourists have had a couple of re-unions since then and I am only sorry that the 1993 squad have not had a chance to meet up. Whether all the players would turn up is questionable but time is a good healer and maybe it’s time for the 1993 squad to reunite?
As we know the 1997 tour was cemented in Lions’ history with a magnificent test series win in South Africa who were then the current World Cup holders. Many will have watched the ‘Living with the Lions’ video and Jim Telfer’s famous ‘Everest Speech’.
Coupled alongside that emotion was the heartache of watching Doddie Weir being told that his injury against Mpumalanga would see him return home early just as I had done 4 years earlier from New Zealand.
Will Greenwood also received a serious injury when he was knocked out in the match against the Cheetahs. The quick intervention of Dr James Robson, who stopped Greenwood from swallowing his own tongue, saved his life but whenever a player gets injured on a Lions tour, I have particular sympathy having been through the trauma myself.
The one thing that I am very grateful of compared to 1997 is that my touring memories are my own and that of my colleagues. Of course we had the odd picture taken but there isn’t any video footage from inside our winning changing room in Sydney back in July 1989. Those images however are still as crystal clear today as they were back then.
The only difference is that the memories were ours and can only be shared in conversation and in writing which I am happy to do so today! Funnily enough someone posted a black and white picture recently on twitter of me and Jeremy Guscott my centre partner in the changing room after that famous win. He has cigarette in hand and we both have a can of beer in our hands. Unfortunately my towel does not quite cover everything up!
Don’t get me wrong I am not against this intrusion but when I watch any film coverage taken from inside the Lions’ camp on subsequent tours, I find it fascinating and there’s often a touch of jealousy but the personal feeling and attachment from inside the camp will never be forgotten!
Nowadays in the glare of the media spotlight, the Lions’ squad announcement tomorrow will be stage managed with the tour Captain and player names being announced live on television and across various social media platforms. Thousands will tune in and cast an eye on the selection with many former players including myself being asked to comment on Warren Gatland’s pick.
I am hearing that the Lions may have to be contained within a training bubble at their bases in Johannesburg and Capetown and that the matches will go ahead in empty stadiums. What a shame for the players that they will be unable to experience the real South Africa.
The Lions have become one of the greatest sporting brands in world sport and it is tragic that the home unions could not find a way to postpone the tour for 12 months so that it could be played out in all its colour and glory.
To the players who are selected I hope that they enjoy the experience of representing the Lions. Enjoy the experience and wear the jersey with pride. Respect each other, challenge each other and support each other because once you are a Lion, you are always a Lion!