The dawn of the professional era cast much doubt over the sustainability of the infamous British and Irish Lions tours. However, despite much scrutiny and several underwhelming campaigns, the Lions remain one of the novel aspects of a continuously evolving game.
“Probably the most powerful brand in world rugby,” according to Sean Fitzpatrick, there is little fear of the Lions being dispensed with anytime soon.
Here we take a brief look at the players who have best acquitted themselves in the famous red jersey since rugby became a means of earning a livelihood.
15. Leigh Halfpenny (2009 & 2013)
Although Neil Jenkins made his name as an out-half, he played a pivotal role for the Lions from fullback in 1997. However, his compatriot played an even greater part in Australia three years ago. While Rob Kearney was immense when the Lions came up just short in 2009, Leigh Halfpenny’s boot, running game and aerial prowess assured the Lions of success in 2013.
Halfpenny was deservedly named the Player of the Series. If the Lions are to have any hope of dismantling the All Blacks next year, the 27-year-old’s form and fitness will be a determining factor.
14. George North (2013)
North was assured of his place in the Lions’ folklore when he jaunted to the line from within his own half in the first test in Brisbane in 2013. His legend was further embellished when he scooped up Israel Folau on his shoulder and used the Australian as a shield against would-be tacklers the following week.
Several players have lined out on the wing down through the years with only Tommy Bowe appearing with any regularity. However, given his contribution to the 2013 tour, North is an obvious choice for this side.
13. Brian O’Driscoll (2001, 2005, 2009 & 2013)
Waltzing O’Driscoll captained the Lions on the last fateful trip to New Zealand in 2005. Famously, his tenure was cut short by the combined efforts of Kevin Mealamu and Tana Umaga. Having participated on four tours, O’Driscoll finally secured an elusive series victory in 2013, albeit from the stands.
Nevertheless, O’Driscoll has provided Lions fans with many memories – none moreso than his slalom break through the Australian defence in 2001.
12. Scott Gibbs (1993, 1997 & 2001)
Following a brief flirtation with rugby league, Gibbs returned to the union code prior to the 1997 tour to South Africa. Having been selected to travel to New Zealand in 1993 at just 22 years of age, Gibbs was already an experienced tourist when he lined out alongside Jeremy Guscott in the Lions midfield.
One of the toughest tacklers in the game, Gibbs’ hard-hitting game (in both attack and defence) embodied the 2-1 series victory over the world champions. The Welshman was duly named the Player of the Series. In 2001, Gibbs returned to the Lions fray as a late replacement but did not make the test squad.
11. John Bentley (1997)
Interestingly, John Bentley only appeared for England on four occasions. Like Gibbs, Bentley switched between rugby codes throughout his career. However, his galvanising influence, both on and off the field, during the 1997 tour has cemented his place in Lions history.
With dazzling attacking ability, Bentley’s creativity earned him a seat on the plane. Following his prolific pre-test form, Bentley was named on the wing in the second and third games against the South Africans. His cult status has him selected here ahead of the likes of Jason Robinson and Shane Williams.
10. Jonny Wilkinson (2001 & 2005)
While Gregor Townsend and Jonathon Sexton were members of victorious squads, Wilkinson’s 67 points in six games places him at the top of the pile. Arguably one of the best fly-halves to have ever played the game, Wilkinson almost steered the Lions to victory down under in 2001.
Injured in 2009, Wilkinson turned down what would have been a sensational return to Lions duty in 2013 following an impressive season for Toulon.
9. Matt Dawson (1997 & 2001)
When the in-form Rob Howley suffered an injury in 1997, Dawson was thrust into the spotlight ahead of Austin Healey. A cunning operator, Dawson had the South Africans reeling in the first test.
Breaking from the base of the scrum, Dawson threw an overhead dummy before scampering to the line. Dawson also travelled to Australia in 2001 where he started the third test, again at the expense of an injured Howley.
8. Scott Quinnell (1997 & 2001)
Denied of any significant involvement in 1997 owing to a double-hernia issue, Quinnell was determined to make up for lost time in Australia four years later.
The smile on his face as he burrowed his way under the posts in the first test to put the Lions into an unassailable lead became one of the iconic images of what should have been a victorious Lions tour. Toby Faletau and Jamie Heaslip will continue to stake a claim next summer.
7. Neil Back (1997, 2001 & 2005)
The Dallaglio, Hill and Back triumvirate became accustomed to success on the international stage. Having made his England debut in 1994, Back was a virtual certainty for the Lions by 1997.
A tourist again in 2001 and 2005, Back became the oldest Lion to have played a test match when he started the opening game of the series in New Zealand.
6. Richard Hill (1997, 2001 & 2005)
Although Lawrence Dallaglio was a force to be reckoned with in 1997, injury severely curtailed his Lions career thereafter. Richard Hill, his long-time international colleague, was similarly exceptional in South Africa before excelling in 2001 when he was named as the Player of the Series.
Hill also travelled to New Zealand in 2005 but had his third tour cut short by injury in the first test.
5. Paul O’Connell (2005, 2009 & 2013)
Captain of the 2009 vintage, O’Connell earned eight test caps for the Lions. Overlooked for the captaincy in 2013, O’Connell remained the spiritual leader of the group.
His commitment to the cause was best illustrated when the second-row broke his arm in the first test in Australia but finished out the tight victory.
4. Martin Johnson (1993, 1997 & 2001)
The only man to have captained two touring sides, Johnson first travelled with the Lions as a late replacement in 1993.
In South Africa four years later Johnson was a colossus while his reputation was further embellished by the way in which he managed a difficult tour to Australia in 2001.
3. Paul Wallace (1997)
Regarded as the cornerstone of the Lions scrum by Fran Cotton in 1997, Wallace was widely acclaimed for his performances in South Africa.
Martin Johnson has since attributed much of the Lions’ success to Wallace’s hard work throughout each of the three tests – Wallace was one of five to have played every minute of a momentous tour.
2. Keith Wood (1997 & 2001)
One of the greatest players to have graced the game, Keith followed in the footsteps of his father, Gordon, who toured with the Lions in 1950.
Sensational anytime he pulled on a Lions jersey, Wood was an integral part of the South African adventure of 1997 before excelling once again in Australia four years later.
1. Tom Smith (1997, 2001)
One of the unlikely heroes of the 1997 tour, Smith continued his fine Lions career in Australia where he once again packed down at tighthead for each test fixture.
Smith now enjoys a cult status amongst Lions fans for his hard work and ball handling skills.
Richard McElwee, Pundit Arena
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