| 15.1°C Dublin

Tony Ward: Being a Lion isn't a bigger, better or prouder honour than playing for your country but it's right up there

Close

SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 1980:  Tony Ward of the Lions kicks at goal during the test series between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 1980. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Getty Images)

SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 1980: Tony Ward of the Lions kicks at goal during the test series between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 1980. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Getty Images)

Getty Images

SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 1980: Tony Ward of the Lions kicks at goal during the test series between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 1980. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Getty Images)

So, what does it mean to be a Lion? Is it a bigger, better or prouder honour than being picked to represent your country? No, it's not, but for players in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, it is right up there as career highlights go.

Malcolm O'Kelly described it in these pages as "the pinnacle of achievement as a player. You know that you are being picked from the best players in the four home nations".

The origins of the Lions, or the British Isles Rugby Union Team as they were originally known, can be traced back to the British Empire when the 'mother country' sought to bring its sporting customs to the colonies.

Little did they know the monster they were creating as the colonies soon became the masters in both cricket and rugby and, despite considerable efforts since to reverse that imbalance, I think (with six southern hemisphere World Cups to England's solitary 2003 success), the stranglehold on global dominance remains firmly fixed south of the zero line.

It is that dominance, that in-bred desire to stuff it up 'The Poms' and their travelling cronies (the Celtic trio), that adds to the Lions aura and makes the four-yearly trek south such a fantastic challenge and such an eagerly anticipated experience for players and fans alike.

When I was called up a fortnight into the 10-week, 18-match tour to South Africa in 1980, I didn't have to think twice.

Obsessed

At 25 and obsessed with rugby, I didn't think beyond the honour. I was soon to learn up close, though, what that appalling system called apartheid was all about and, 12 months on, along with Moss Keane, Donal Spring, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Hugo McNeill, declined a return with Ireland on a two-Test tour.

But back to the Lions and the press conference this week at which Warren Gatland hit the nail on the head when saying that, despite professionalism "the Lions represents the last great touring tradition in World rugby".

Although much tailored from the 53-match, eight-month maiden voyage (with 22 players) in 1888 or, indeed, the 18-match trip a little over a century on, a Lions tour with midweek matches still has that nostalgic aura about it.

And, while Big Mal is right when he highlights the challenge of building a Test-winning team in a matter of weeks, I still believe there are so many other factors involved.

That's why, like so many former Lions, I watched bewildered as Clive Woodword, one of my fellow tourists from 1980, tried in 2005 to rip apart everything the Lions had stood for.

Lest you forget, that was the tour of two separate squads – one the premier or Saturday crew, the other, the shadow, midweek players. It was the tour of crazy numbers – 44 players in the original party – single rooming and separate locations.

Former Ireland hooker Shane Byrne tells the story of going a couple of weeks in New Zealand without laying eyes on O'Kelly, who was on the same tour. "We were like ships passing in the night. It was 'them and us' and an experiment that failed."

Certainly, by the time the two-Test final fortnight in Melbourne and Sydney comes around in late June- early July, the first-choice side should be well established – but contrary to Woodward's plan in '05, the longer that division takes, the better.

All 37 players chosen to travel and those who will eventually join up along the way must believe to a man, even if they haven't a snowball's hope in hell, that they can make the starting line-up for the Tests.

The success or failure of a tour can hinge on that premise, most particularly one of this magnitude.

And while the rooming issue might sound trivial to some, it is arguably the most essential and most unifying aspect of touring.

The idea that 'if you want to know me, come live with me' certainly applies. Part of the craic and touring ethos is when either the duty boy or team manager (probably the former), calls out the pairings after switching cities and hotels.

I remember arriving in Bloemfontein ahead of the match against Orange Free State and, with the rest of the party already ensconced in their rooms, making my way to mine not knowing who my room-mate might be.

The door was slightly ajar and inside stretched on the bed and strumming his guitar and singing as if on stage was Scottish No 8 Jock (Johnnie) Beattie, whom I had played against, but never met as such.

Within hours we were bosom buddies. You cannot put a value on what that sort of off field experience brings to on-field performance.

You may not always get on with your 'roomy', but the opportunity to try is worth its weight in gold. Woodward couldn't have been further off the mark in his desire for change.

We had 30 players in the original party on that 1980 tour, with nine, including current tour manager Andy Irvine, called as replacements.

There was room for only two full teams. Hence two in every position including the specialist areas of hooker, scrum-half and out-half.

Indeed, with Welsh half-backs Terry Holmes and Gareth Davies picking up knocks and returning home, all four halves that finished the 1980 tour – Colin Patterson, Johnny Robbie, Ollie Campbell and yours truly – were from this country.

Amazingly, Conor Murray will be the first Irish scrum-half to travel with the Lions since Robbie and Patterson 33 years ago.

The one disappointing element ahead of this tour – and, again, it is a symptom of the professional era that we are in – is Robbie Deans' demand that players from the five Australian franchises will not be available to take on the Lions for their states between Tests.

The players themselves will be the ultimate losers and they will fully appreciate that fact only later in life.

I understand the reasoning behind Deans' decision – to give the Wallabies the best possible chance in the tests – but that doesn't make it right. It takes from his opposite number's recent assertion of the Lions as the last great touring institution in modern-day rugby.

That said, there is still a mystique surrounding a Lions team that never plays at home (and yes I am aware of the Puma money-making nonsense at the Millennium Stadium in 2005).

It is a sense of adventure shared by players and supporters alike. To be awarded Lions status is not just a fantastic experience, as Jamie Roberts said following 2009: "That tour changed my life, it was a privilege and honour and just amazing to be part of it."

For Cian Healy, Jonny Sexton, Sean O'Brien and all the other first-time Lions, the ultimate experience awaits.

Irish Independent