Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Lions’

Tomorrow morning (Disunited Kingdom and Namibian time) the British & Irish Lions will play the 1st Test of their 2017 tour against New Zealand’s All Blacks. It is a much anticipated match, one of the most important in which most of the players will take part. 

My first rugby memory is of the 1971 Lions tour of NZ, the only time that the Lions have won a Test series there. Of course, as a 7-year old I did not realise that the 1971 tour was, and would remain, so historic. 

I didn’t say that I was witnessing history, as live TV of sporting events occurring on the other side of the world did not exist in 1971. At least, not for rugby. So we listened live on the radio, at 4am (as matches were played mid-afternoon local time). Later in the day, highlights would be shown on TV, which we also watched even though we knew the score. 

The “we” were myself, my two sisters and my parents. My father gave us no choice in whether we were woken up to listen to the Test matches in 1971; refusal was not an option. 

The 1971 tour remains burned in the minds of so many rugby fans, and not just supportes of the Lions but those of the All Blacks too. Many Kiwis of my age will tell you that their rugby heroes were Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies or J.P.R. Williams, not the men who represented New Zealand at that time. 

This 2017 tour is not only a chance to get that second series win, It is also a chance for Kiwi Warren Gatland to put one over on his native country and put himself at the head of the list to succeed Steve Hansen as the next All Blacks’ coach. Here is the team chosen for the 1st Test. 

To many people’s surprise, Leigh Halfpenny and George North have not been included. Gatland and his coaching team have, instead, gone with a far more attacking back three. The other major talking point is Allan Wyn Jones’ inclusion ahead of Maro Itoje, but I’m not surprised by this. Although Itoje has been in great form, Alun Wyn is one of the most experienced and best locks in World rugby. Tour captain Sam Warburton had pretty much declared himself out of contention to start the 1st Test, feeling that he’s not yet fit enough. 

If the Lions can win the 1st Test then it will be a huge result. Not only will it make winning the 3-Test series a real possibility, but it will also be the first time that the All Blacks have lost at Eden Park since 1994! A loss by the All Blacks would send shockwaves through New Zealand rugby. The Lions need no greater motivation to play the game of their lives. 

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I heard the sad news mid-morning on Thursday (28th of August) that Cliff Morgan had died. To my generation, he was a wonderful commentator with a beautiful turn of phrase and soft Welsh accent. But, to my father’s generation, he was the sparkling outside half (number 10) in the Welsh side or Wales’ “second golden era” of the 1950s.


Over the weekend many tributes have been paid to him, including Gareth Edwards who said that when he went on tour of South Africa with The Lions in 1968, they were still talking of Morgan’s brilliance as an outside half when he captained The Lions there in 1955. And, talking of Gareth Edwards, here is Morgan’s wonderful commentary of one of the greatest tries ever, Gareth Edwards’ try against New Zealand in the Barbarians v New Zealand match of January 1973.

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In a few hours’ time, the 2013 British and Irish Lions will play the second test against Australia in Melbourne. Having won the first test in Brisbane last week in dramatic (and lucky!) fashion, winning today will win them the 3-test series. They have not won a series since South Africa in 1997.

Warren Gatland and his coaching staff have made 5 changes to the starting line-up. Scrum half Mike Phillips has lost his starting place to Ben Youngs, which doesn’t come as any surprise to me as I thought Phillips had quite a poor game in the first test. He was thoroughly outplayed by the Wallabies scrum half Will Genia, and all his attempts at breaks were thwarted by the Aussie back row.


Other changes see Wales’ Dan Lydiate start as blind-side flanker, taking the place of Tom Croft. Lydiate, the player of the 2012 6 Nations, is a prodigious tackler, so hopefully he can eliminate the dangers posed by players like Aussie half-backs Will Genia and Kurtley Beale (whom I expect to start at fly half). Ireland’s Tommy Bowe is back from injury and replaces Alex Cuthbert on the wing. Those three changes are tactical, the other two are forced by injury.

Geoff Parling comes in for the injured Paul O’Connel in the second row, and in the front row Mako Vunipola comes in for the injured Alex Corbisiero. Although I have not read it, I assume Jamie Roberts not being included at centre means he is still injured.

Although it would be great to see the Lions wrap up the series today, part of me hopes it will all come down to the third and final test in Sydney, just like it did the last time the Lions toured Australia in 2001. We shall know in a few hours’ time!

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The biggest challenge for the Lions in their warm-up match against The Barbarians was the weather. They comfortably beat The Barbarians by 59 points to 8, but had to endure temperatures in the low 30s and 95% humidity. Most of the players on both sides said it was the most difficult conditions in which they had ever played. Certainly one could see the red shirts of the Lions’ players were soaked with sweat only a few minutes into the match.


Wisely, the officials allowed frequent breaks for the players to re-hydrate. In addition, even when the play was in progress, it was clear that most of the players were not going to over exert themselves in such conditions, so the game was played at a canter rather than a gallop.

The Lions ran in 8 tries, including 2 each from Mike Phillips and Alex Cuthbert. Mike Phillips had a very good game, making frequent breaks and generally showing that he seems to be back to his best. The match was largely without incident, except for a fight between two club team-mates who were playing on opposite sides! Owen Farrell, outside half for the Lions and his Saracens teammate Schalk Brits got into a scuffle which had Brits throw a punch at Farrell, an offence which is normally an automatic red card. But, due to the spirit of this game, he was merely given 10 minutes in the sin bin.

It was good to see the Lions look so cohesive. Four years ago they played a warm up game against Argentina at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium before they headed to South Africa. That game was a rather unconvincing performance and ended in a draw. Of how much value this warm up match in Hong Kong was we shall have to see. The Lions have their opening tour match tomorrow (Wednesday the 5th of June) against Western Force, the Perth-based Super 15 team. But it is only next weekend, when they face the Queensland Reds, that we will really see whether the 2013 Lions are in with a chance of winning their tour of Australia.

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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.

Warren Gatland has chosen Sam Warburton to captain the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia.

Warren Gatland has chosen Sam Warburton of Wales to captain the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia.

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.

The schedule of matches for the 2013 Lions tour of Australia.

The schedule of matches for the 2013 Lions tour of Australia.

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.

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