Monday 26 August 2019

Tony Ward: Lions tours not what they were but strong start can be half the battle for Class of '17

Jack McGrath during British and Irish Lions squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Jack McGrath during British and Irish Lions squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

On a May Monday morning back in 1980, I received three urgent messages at my then place of work in Limerick.

I had just arrived back from playing in the Amsterdam Sevens when the call came out via Ronnie Dawson in Dublin, and via team manager Syd Millar and coach Noel Murphy independently in South Africa, to see if I could make myself immediately available to join up with Gareth Davies and Ollie Campbell as the Lions' third out-half.

The reply you can guess - it was a no-brainer, just a matter of when not if. By Wednesday, I was on my way.

The point is that when the Lions come calling no other factors come into play. You down tools and head.

To represent the Lions is the greatest rugby honour in this part of the world. I learnt a lot on that 1980 tour through circumstances off the field that were to have a profound influence on my rugby-playing life in years to come.

For first-time Lions - specifically the Irish contingent of Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne - being picked for the ultimate touring experience is a huge honour.

But what makes Lions touring special?

Even allowing for the fact that touring today is very different to what it was prior to the game going open, there are still wonderful aspects beyond the white lines.

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Whereas I was the first addition to the Billy Beaumont squad, leaving Limerick on May 21 and returning on July 14, now the whole thing is done and dusted in a five-week package.

We were midway between the six-month tour of the 1950s and the five-to-six-week tour as it is today.

It has changed in many ways, not least professionalism, communication and travel restriction outside of training and game time.

But in others it remains the same. We too had our team song and it was special as Ray Gravell - as proud a native-speaking Welshman as ever there was - led the singing of Flower of Scotland (the Lions anthem) as the team coach made its way into the ground through opposition supporters on match day.

It was special and to this day sends shivers up my spine when I think of its relevance back then.

Already the vibes coming out of the class of '17 are of 'getting to know one another' and just what it means to room with opponents you would scarcely talk to given the modern game's protocols and lack of post-match revelry.

On that 1980 tour, I roomed with the likes of Johnny Beattie, Ian Stephens, Alun Martin, Alan Tomes, Gareth Williams and other forwards.

The camaraderie and bonding was amazing and led to us replicating the achievement of Willie John's trailblazers in 1974 when returning a 100pc record, winning all 14 games outside of the Test series.

How the midweek team or dirt trekkers perform is vital in terms of collective morale for the duration, and certainly in 1980 under Derek Quinnell's captaincy we were acutely aware of that.

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But the ultimate measure is the Test series and how it pans out.

No-one talks of '80 now for the simple reason we lost the Test series 3-1.

The fact that in modern currency there was but a single score between the sides in every Test made not a whit of difference. Springboks 3, Lions 1 was the bottom line.

That is how this Lions squad will be judged in time to come and that is how it should be. It is how you perform in the games of consequence that defines you as a Lion within Lions.

There is too a human side being away from home for a significant period of time but that again, given the greatly reduced fixture list, allied to modern communication technology, makes touring so much easier nowadays.

And easier still for the 23 named to take on the Provincial Barbarians in the opening game in Whangarei tomorrow morning.

Of course there is pressure on the chosen squad to ensure the 2017 tour gets off to a positive, winning start but this is the softest match of the tour by far and so designed as to enable the tourists settle in quickly to training and match-day routine.

After tomorrow it is effectively Super and Test rugby all the way on this tour.

So for all 23, and particularly the Irish contingent of Johnny Sexton, Rory Best, Henderson and Furlong (the latter two making their Lions debut), this early run is heaven-sent.

And, as the old adage goes, a good start is half the battle.

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