This coming Saturday (1st of June) the British and Irish Lions will play a warm-up match against the invitational Barbarians team in Hong Kong, before they head to Australia for their 2013 tour. The Lions, who tour every 4 years, have not won a tour since their tour of South Africa in 1997, which they won 2-1. Their 2001 tour of Australia resulted in a 2-1 loss, with the final test deciding the series. In 2005 the Lions suffered a “black wash” in New Zealand, losing the series 3-0. And, most recently, in 2009 they lost their tour in South Africa 2-1, only winning the final game of an already lost series.
A brief history of the British and Irish Lions
The first rugby tour of the Southern Hemisphere by a team from Great Britain was in 1888. A 21-man squad from England, Scotland and Wales went on a 35-match (yes, thirty five!) tour of Australia and New Zealand. No matches were played against any “national” sides, but the tour established the idea of a touring party going to play against Southern Hemisphere opposition.
A complete list of all Lions’ tours can be found here. As you can see from this table, the current format of a tour every 4 years, alternating between New Zealand, South Africa and Australia did not begin until 1993. Prior to that the tours tended to be every 3 years, and because of the sporting boycott against the apartheid South Africa, no Lions tours of South Africa took place between the tour of 1980 and the one of 1997.
In total, the Lions have toured South Africa 13 times, winning 4 series, losing 8 and drawing 1. They have toured Australia 8 times, winning 6 series and losing 2. Finally, they have toured New Zealand 11 times, winning only 1 series (in 1971), and losing the other 10.
The 2013 tour of Australia
Since the advent of the professional era in 1995, Lions tours have become shorter. Also, the number of test matches was cut from 4 to 3 on each tour back in 1980. This obviously reduces the likely hood of a drawn series, as a drawn match in rugby is much less likely than in e.g. football.
The 2013 tour is longer than some recent ones, with several games against “provincial” and Super-15 sides. The full list of matches, including this Saturday’s warm-up match against the Barbarians, is shown below.
As I mentioned above, the last time the Lions toured Australia was 12 years ago, in 2001. On that occasion, the Lions easily won the opening test in Brisbane, 29-13. However, they lost the second test in Melbourne by 35-14. The outcome of the series came down to the third and final test. With minutes to go and the score at 29-23 to Australia, the Lions had a line-out near the Australian line, providing a superb scoring opportunity to win the Test and the series. But, the ball was famously won by the Australian second-row Justin Harrison, denying the Lions the victory.
The 37-man squad for the 2013 tour is dominated by players from Wales. The coach is Warren Gatland, who is on sabbatical from his position as Wales’ coach. This, combined with Wales having won the 6 Nations for the last two seasons, means the Welsh contingent was always likely to be the largest. There are 15 players from Wales, 10 from England, 9 from Ireland and 3 from Scotland. The squad captain is also Welsh, Sam Warburton, who becomes the first Welsh captain of the Lions since the 1977 tour of New Zealand when Phil Bennet was captain.
The only member of the Wales starting line-up in the 30-3 annihilation of England back in March who has been left out of the Lions squad is the outside half Dan Biggar. Speculation is rife as to how many of the players picked to play the Barbarians in Saturday’s warm up match will be Welsh. We will find out soon enough, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is as many as 12 or 13! This is partly because many of the English and Irish players have been involved in club-level matches right up to this last weekend (hardly any of the Welsh and Scottish players have been); but also because Warren Gatland has shown before that he likes to initially select from an already established group of players. In his first match as Wales coach (the opening match of the 2008 6 Nations), fully 13 (thirteen) of the starting line up were from the same club side, the Ospreys!
The biggest challenge facing Gatland is the challenge faced by any Lions coach, to bring players from four separate countries together into a cohesive squad of players. He may be helped in this by having coached in Wales (he has been Wales’ national coach since December 2008), England (he coached the London Wasps club side for 3 seasons, 2002-2005) and Ireland (he was Ireland’s national coach from 1998-2001). So he can justifiably say that he is familiar with the rugby culture in three of the four countries which make up the Lions. We should know long before the first test on the 22nd of June how well he is succeeding in this task.