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How the Lions went from cash cow to seriously wounded animal

Brendan Fanning


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Warren Gatland. Photo: PA

Warren Gatland. Photo: PA

PA

Warren Gatland. Photo: PA

In the summer of 1997 the Lions went to South Africa on their first tour of the professional era. It was a game-changer, a game-saver, a game you were glad to have seen up close. It's debatable how many folks at the time appreciated the reality: if this first foray into the unknown was a washout then there might not be a follow-up. Everything was up in the air back then.

Two years earlier rugby shifted from amateur to pro, to save the sport from disappearing at the top level under pressure from those happy to pay the marquee names. For many, the first season of the new era had been one of standing still to see what others were doing. In the second, things gathered a bit of pace. Control of players and competitions was the battleground, so it was easy to see why we looked at the Lions and feared for their survival.

To have gone to South Africa in '97 and to have had their arses handed to them on a plate, and to have brought modest numbers of supporters with them - both were distinct possibilities as the season kicked off the previous September. Thankfully it was nothing like that.