The British and Irish Lions (until 2001 known as the British Isles Rugby Union Team or "British Lions") rugby union side comprises a pick of the best players from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Rugby union circles refer to these four international Rugby Unions collectively as the "Home Nations" and therefore sometimes refer to the Lions team as a "Home Nations" team. Lions selectors can also pick uncapped players available to one of the four home unions, but in recent years this has rarely occurred.
Combined rugby union sides from the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland toured in the Southern Hemisphere from 1888 onwards. The first tour took place as a commercial venture, made without official backing, but the six subsequent visits that took place prior to the 1910 South Africa tour (the first selected by a committee from the four Home Unions) enjoyed a growing degree of support from the authorities, although only one of these included representatives of all four nations.
The International Olympic Committee does not generally allow non-sovereign nations to compete in Olympic Games. But UK teams competed several times at the rugby union competitions in the Olympics in 1900 and in 1908. This did not form part of the Lions tradition. The Summer Olympics last included rugby union in 1924.
The 1950s proved a golden age for Lions rugby, although only in the 1970s did style begin to match the substance of victory in New Zealand and South Africa. Originally, poorly-organised Lions teams regularly suffered defeat at the hands of their hosts, but by 1955 the tourists took the matches seriously enough to obtain a 2-2 draw in South Africa. The 1970s saw a renaissance for the side. The last tour of the amateur age took place in 1993. Three tours have happened since.
The team historically and controversially used the name British Isles. On their 1950 tour of New Zealand and Australia they also adopted the nickname British Lions after the lion emblem on their jerseys. Since the 2001 tour of Australia they have used the name British and Irish Lions. The team adopted this latest name to take account of the fact that the Republic of Ireland has not formed a part of the UK since 1922; in addition nationalists in most parts of Ireland object to any implication of "Britishness". (Some have criticised this change as exhibiting unnecessary political correctness, arguing that the term "British Isles" has a geographic meaning and carries no political overtones. However for many Irish people the term "British Isles" does carry political overtones, and some people have seen the name "British Lions" as excluding Ireland.) Most rugby-union fans simply refer to the team as the Lions.
The Lions do not represent a nation-state, and as such they do not relate to any national flag or other national symbols, and they do not have a national anthem. For the 2005 tour to New Zealand the Lions directorate specially commissioned a song, "The Power of Four", although it met with little support amongst Lions fans at the matches, and even the players seemed not to know the words. The status of the song on future tours remains uncertain.
The Lions first wore their traditional colours on the 1930 tour: red jerseys, white shorts, blue socks and green stocking-tops, to represent each of the four Home Unions (Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland respectively).
The earliest Lions tours date back to 1888, when a 21-man squad visited Australia and New Zealand. The squad drew players from England, Scotland and Wales, though English players predominated. The 35-match tour of two host nations included no tests, but the side played provincial, city and academic sides, winning 27 matches. They played 21 games of Australian rules football, against prominent clubs in Victoria and South Australia, and won six of these (see Australian rules football in England).
The first tour, although unsanctioned by rugby bodies, had established the notion of touring Northern Hemisphere sporting sides to Southern Hemisphere locations. Three years after the first tour, the Western Province union invited rugby bodies in Britain to tour South Africa. Some saw the 1891 team — the first sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union — as the English rugby team, though others referred to it (and rightly so) as "the British Isles". The tourists played a total of twenty matches, three of them tests. The team also played the regional side of South Africa (South Africa did not exist as a political unit in 1891), winning all three matches. In a notable event of the tour, the touring side presented the Currie Cup to Griqualand West, the province they thought produced the best performance on the tour.
Five years later a British Isles side returned to South Africa. They played one extra match on this tour, making the total of 21 games, including four tests against South Africa, with the British Isles winning three of them. The squad had a notable Irish orientation, with the Irish national team contributing six players to the 21-man squad.
In 1899 the British Isles touring side returned to Australia for the first time since the unofficial tour of 1888. The squad of 23 for the first time ever had players from each of the home nations. The team again participated in 21 matches, playing state teams as well as northern Queensland sides and Victorian teams. A four-test series took place against Australia, the tourists winning three out of the four.
Four years later, in 1903, the British and Irish team returned to South Africa. The opening performance of the side proved disappointing from the tourists' point of view, with defeats in its opening three matches by Western Province sides in Cape Town. From then on the team experienced mixed results, though more wins than losses. The side lost the test series to South Africa, drawing twice, but with the South Africans winning the decider 8 to nil.
No more than twelve months passed before the British and Irish team ventured to Australia and New Zealand in 1904. The tourists devastated the Australian teams, winning every single game. Australia also lost all three tests to the visitors, even getting held to a stand-still in two of the three games. Though the New Zealand leg of the tour did not take long in comparison to the number of Australian games, the British and Irish experienced considerable difficulty across the Tasman after white-washing the Australians. The team managed two early wins before losing the test to New Zealand and only winning one more game as well as drawing once. Despite their difficulties in New Zealand the tour proved a raging success on-field for the British and Irish.
In 1908 another tour took place to Australia and New Zealand. In a reversal of previous practice, the planners allocated more matches in New Zealand rather than in Australia: perhaps the strength of the New Zealand teams and the heavy defeats of all Australian teams on the previous tour influenced this decision. Some commentators thought that this tour hoped to reach out to rugby communities in Australia, as rugby league (infamously) started in Australia in 1908. The Anglo-Welsh side (Irish and Scottish unions did not participate) performed well in all the non-test matches, but drew a test against New Zealand and lost the other two.
Visits that took place prior to the 1910 South Africa tour (the first selected by a committee from the four Home Unions) had enjoyed a growing degree of support from the authorities, although only one of these included representatives of all four nations. The 1910 tour to South Africa marked the official beginning of British and Irish rugby tours: the inaugural tour operating under all four unions. The team performed moderately against the non-test parties, claiming victories in just over half their matches. The test series, however, went to South Africa, who won two of the three games. A side managed by Oxford University — supposedly the England rugby team but actually including three Scottish players — toured Argentina at the time: the people of Argentina termed it the "Combined British".
A wait of fourteen years would ensue until another British Isles team tour took place, again in South Africa. The team struggled with injuries and lost all four tests (a game against the Western Province had test status). This tour may have marked the occasion when the team first became known as "the Lions".
In 1927 a short nine-game series took place in Argentina, with the Lions winning all nine encounters; the tour did however become a financial success for Argentinian rugby. After a seemingly long absence from New Zealand, the Lions returned in 1930 to some success. The Lions won all of their games that did not have test status except for the matches against Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury; they did however lose all of their test matches against the All Blacks. The side also visited Australia, losing a test but winning five out of the six non-test games.
In 1936 the Lions visited Argentina, winning all ten of their matches and only conceding nine points in the whole tour. Two years later the Lions toured in South Africa, winning more than half of their normal matches. Despite having lost the test series to South Africa by game three, the Lions won the final test.
The first post-war tour went to New Zealand and Australia in 1950. The Lions, sporting newly redesigned jerseys and displaying a fresh style of play, managed to win 22 and draw one of 29 matches over the two nations. The Lions won the opening four fixtures before losing to Otago and Southland, but succeeded in holding the All Blacks to a nine-all draw. The Lions performed well in the remaining All Black tests though they lost all three, the team did not lose another non-test in the New Zealand leg of the tour. The Lions won all their games in Australia except for their final fixture against a New South Wales XV in Newcastle. They won both of the two tests against Australia, in Brisbane and in Sydney.
The 1955 tour to South Africa proved arguably just as successful — or even more successful — than the previous tour that had taken place five years earlier. The Lions left with another imposing record, one draw and 19 wins from the 25 fixtures. The four-test series against South Africa, a thrilling affair, ended in a drawn series.
The 1959 tour to Australia and New Zealand marked once again a very successful tour for the Lions, who only lost six of their 35 fixtures. The Lions easily won both tests against Australia and lost the first three tests against the All Blacks, but did find victory in the final test.
After the glittering decade of the 1950s, the first tour of the 1960s proved not nearly as successful as previous ones. The 1962 tour to South Africa saw the Lions still win 16 of their 25 games, but did not fair well against the Springboks, losing three of the four tests. For the 1966 tour to Australia and New Zealand John Robins became the first Lions Coach, and the trip started off very well for the Lions, who stormed through Australia, winning five non-tests and drawing one; and most notably defeating Australia in two tests as well. The Lions however experienced mixed results during the New Zealand leg of the tour, as well as losing all of the tests against the All Blacks. The Lions also played a test against Canada on their way home, winning 19 to 8 in Toronto. The 1968 tour of South Africa saw the Lions win 15 of their 16 provincial matches, but the team actually lost three tests against the Springboks and drew one.
The 1970s saw a renaissance for the Lions. The 1971 team, centred around the skilled Welsh half-back pairing of Gareth Edwards and Barry John, secured a series win over the All Blacks. The tour started with a loss to Queensland but proceeded to storm through the next provincinal fixtures, winning 11 games in a row. The Lions then went on to defeat the All Blacks in Dunedin. The Lions would only lose a single match on the rest of the tour, and won the test series against New Zealand, winning and drawing the last two games, to take the series two wins to one.
Arguably the best-known and most successful Lions team toured South Africa in 1974 under the esteemed Irish forward Willie John McBride. It went through 22 games unbeaten, and triumphed 3-0 (with one drawn) in the test series. The test series featured a lot of violence. The management of the Lions concluded that the Springboks dominated their opponents with physical aggression. At that time test-match referees came from the home nation, substitutions took place only if a doctor found a player physically unable to continue and no video cameras and sideline officials existed to keep actions such as punching, kicking, and head-butting to a minimum. The Lions decided "to get their retaliation in first" with the infamous "99 call" ("99" representing a shortening of "999", the phone number in Britain and Ireland for emergency services such as the police, ambulance or fire brigade). The Lions postulated that a South African referee would probably not send off all of the Lions if they all retaliated against "blatant thuggery". Famous video footage of the battle of Boet Erasmus Stadium, one of the most violent in rugby history, shows JPR Williams running over half of the pitch and launching himself at van Heerden after such a call.
The 1977 tour to New Zealand saw the Lions drop only one non-test out of 21 games, a loss to a Universities side. The team did not win the test series though, winning one game but losing the other three.
The Lions toured South Africa in 1980. The team completed a flawless non-test record, winning 14 out of 14 non-test matches on the tour. The Lions did however lose the first three tests to South Africa, winning the last one, though the series had already been won by the Springboks. The 1983 tour to New Zealand saw the team successful on the non-test front, winning all but two games, but getting white-washed in the test-series against the All Blacks.
The Lions tour to Australia in 1989 was a short affair, being only 12 matches in total. The tour was very successful for the Lions, who won all eight non-tests and won the test series against Australia, two to one. The Lions tour to New Zealand in 1993 was the last of the amateur era. The tourists won six and lost four non-test matches and losing the test series two games to one.
The 1997 tour to South Africa was a success for the Lions, who completed the tour only losing two games in total. The Lions won the test series two games to one. In 2001 a ten game tour took place in Australia, which saw the Wallabies win the test series two games to one. This series saw the first award of the Tom Richards Trophy.
The Lions' latest tour took place in New Zealand in 2005. New Zealand comprehensively won all three test games.
The Lions comprise a touring team which currently plays three southern-hemisphere teams; Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. They also routinely toured in Argentina before World War II. Tours currently take place every four years, the most recent one, the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, in 2005. The next planned tour will visit South Africa in 2009.
In a break with tradition, a first "home" fixture against Argentina took place at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on 23 May 2005, before the Lions went to New Zealand. It finished in a 25-all draw. Some people believe that should this continue, the next "home" match should take place at Twickenham Stadium, Lansdowne Road or Murrayfield Stadium
On tour, mid-week games take place against local provinces or clubs as well as the weekend full tests against the host's national team. Tension normally exists between those selected for the tests and those who turn out only for the mid-week games.
|1888|| New Zealand|
| Bob Seddon|
| Alfred Shaw|
|1891||South Africa||Bill Maclagen||Edwin Ash||Won||3-0|
|1896||South Africa||Johnny Hammond||R Walker||Won||3-1|
|1899||Australia||Rev. Matthew Mullineux||Rev. Matthew Mullineux||Won||3-1|
|1903||South Africa||Mark Morrison||Johnny Hammond||Lost||0-1 (with 2 draws)|
& New Zealand
|David Bedell-Sivright||Arthur O'Brien||Won Lost||3-0 (Australia) 0-1 (New Zealand)|
|1908|| New Zealand|
|Boxer Harding||G.F Harnett||Lost||0-2 (with 1 draw)|
|1910||South Africa||Dr. Tom Jordinson||W Cail|
Walter E. Rees
|1910||Argentina||John Raphael||RV Stanley||Won||1-0|
|1924||South Africa||Ronald Cove-Smith||Harry Packer||Lost||0-3 (with 1 draw)|
|1927||Argentina||David MacMyn||James Baxter||Won||4-0|
|Doug Prentice||James Baxter||Lost Lost||3-1 (New Zealand) 0-1 (Australia)|
|1938||South Africa||Sam Walker||Col. B.C Hartley||Lost||1-2|
|1950|| New Zealand|
|Karl Mullen||Surgeon Captain L.B Osborne||Lost Won||0-3 (New Zealand - with 1 draw) 2-0 (Australia)|
|1955||South Africa||Robin Thompson||Draw||2-2|
& New Zealand
|Ronnie Dawson||OB Glasgow||Won Lost||2-0 (Australia) 1-3 (New Zealand)|
|1962||South Africa||Arthur Smith||Lost||0-3 (with 1 draw)|
| David Watkins |
|John Robins||Won Lost|
|2-0 (Australia) 0-4 (New Zealand)|
|1968||South Africa||Tom Kiernan||Ronnie Dawson||Lost||0-3 (with 1 draw)|
|1971||New Zealand||John Dawes||Carwyn James||Won||2-1 (with 1 draw)|
|1974||South Africa||Willie John McBride||Syd Millar||Won||3-0 (with 1 draw)|
|1977||New Zealand & Fiji||Phil Bennett||John Dawes||Lost Lost||1-3 (New Zealand) 0-1 (Fiji)|
|1980||South Africa||Bill Beaumont||Noel Murphy||Lost||1-3|
|1983||New Zealand||Ciaran Fitzgerald||Jim Telfer||Lost||0-4|
|1986||"Rest of World"||Colin Deans||Mick Doyle||Lost||0-1|
|1989||Australia||Finlay Calder||Ian McGeechan||Won||2-1|
|1993||New Zealand||Gavin Hastings||Ian McGeechan||Lost||1-2|
|1997||South Africa||Martin Johnson||Ian McGeechan||Won||2-1|
|2001||Australia||Martin Johnson||Graham Henry||Lost||1-2|
|2005||Argentina||Brian O'Driscoll||Sir Clive Woodward||Drawn|
|2005||New Zealand||Brian O'Driscoll|
|Sir Clive Woodward||Lost||0-3|
|2009||South Africa||Ian McGeechan|
The number of players each union sends to the Lions often becomes a matter of great controversy. The 2005 squad came under fire from the Scottish media because of the perceived under-representation of Scots on the side (three men out of an initial squad of forty-four potential players). Similar controversies arose in Wales and Ireland. This has led to questions as to whether the team should have set proportions representing each of the four nations, or merely a selection of the four taken as a whole. The British rugby site Planet-Rugby.com lampooned both the Lions' poor showing and the speculation about the team's future in an April Fool's prank in 2006, running a bogus news story claiming that the Lions would begin to include players from the remaining Six Nations teams of France and Italy.
In September 2008, what had been merely a joke in 2006 became a serious suggestion in a slightly different form. Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price called for the Lions to be scrapped and replaced by a side drawn from all of Europe. As he envisioned it on his blog, "What I’m suggesting is a sort of Ryder Cup for rugby, where Europe would play a series against a Southern Hemisphere XV home and away every two years.
The next planned Lions tour will go to South Africa in 2009.
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