Speculation is mounting ahead of Warren Gatland naming his British and Irish Lions squad next week.
The most prestigious accolade any test rugby player from these islands can get is a call to wear the famous red jersey. However, it’s fair to say that some have made that jersey their own in their respective positions.
There has been some standout moments and classic matches in Lions history, therefore trying to pick an all-time XV isn’t easy.
Since its inception in 1888 as the Shaw and Shrewsbury Team, some of the all-time greats have gone on tour. It wasn’t until the 1950 tour of Australia and New Zealand that the team took on the official moniker of the British Lions and settled on their trademark strip. Furthermore, only in 2001 did the term ‘Irish’ become part of the official team name.
All that aside, the tours themselves have thrown up much drama. The 1974 tourists were possibly the most memorable due to their 21 wins and one draw, including a 3-0 test whitewash, in South Africa (the fourth test was a draw).
However, they can only boast one series win over the All Blacks, all the way back in 1971. The Lions go into this year’s test series with New Zealand having won the series against Australia four years ago 2-1.
Here we assemble the best the Lions have had to offer over their illustrious history.
1. Ian McLauchlan (Scotland)
The man they called “Mighty Mouse” wasn’t the biggest man in the front row. He more than made up for it in strength, however.
A member of the 1971 test side, he scored a try on his debut. He proved his flawless scrummaging technique on the famous 1974 tour.
2. Keith Wood (Ireland)
There’s a reason Wood was the first inductee into the IRB Hall of Fame. His all round game was a joy to watch and he brought it with him on tour.
He popped up everywhere around the field against South Africa in 1997, winning the Man of the Match award in the second test. Subsequently, the Clare man was a tourist in 2001 as well.
3. Fran Cotton (England)
Cotton was up front on the 1977 tour tests. It’s never an easy task to make an All Blacks scrum creak but he did just that.
Also a tourist in 1974 and 1980 in South Africa, he always gave a great display in the art of the scrum.
4. Martin Johnson (England)
For some a controversial character, but for all one of the greats. His leadership earned him the captaincy in both 1997 and 2001.
He remains the only man to captain the Lions on two tours. Johnson also toured in 1993’s narrow series loss to New Zealand. His work in the loose and the lineout set him apart as a player.
5. Willie John McBride (Ireland)
A record 17 test across five tours for what many regard as the greatest lock ever produced by the home nations.
Additionally, he was the captain of the great ’74 team and always proved himself and inspirational figure on the pitch.
6. Richard Hill (England)
Hill was a tourist on three occasions from 1997 to 2005. His decision making and worth at the breakdown have him lauded as one of the greatest blindsides to ever play the game.
He did this with club, country and with the Lions. His work rate was instrumental in particular against the Wallabies in 2001 to give his team go forward ball.
7. Fergus Slattery (Ireland)
Another of the class of ’71 and ’74. For a flanker he had great pace and used this to great effect.
Furthermore, his ability to forge ball and his brilliant support play really came to the fore on the South African tour.
8. Mervyn Davies (Wales)
“Mervyn the Swerve” was always instantly recognisable with his white headband. He was a key member of the pack for both the 1971 and 1974 Lions teams that beat New Zealand and South Africa.
Davies’ domineering height meant he became a formidable presence at back of the lineout too.
9. Gareth Edwards (Wales)
Only six Welsh men have won three grand slams. Edwards is the first of three of them on this list. He was a tourist in 1971 and 1974.
It was his partnership with Barry John in the half back line that was key to the Lions’ only tour series victory in New Zealand in ’71. His work rate in ’74 was the corner stone on which the tourists won 21 and drew one of their 22 games.
10. Barry John (Wales)
John is the standout stand-off in Lions history. It’s no surprise then that they nicknamed him, “The King”. He scored 30 of the Lions’ 48 points against the All Blacks in ’71.
Injury cut short his tour in 1968 unfortunately but his display three years later, a constant thorn in the side of New Zealand, puts him ahead of all others.
11. Tony O’Reilly (Ireland)
The Irishman still retains the title of top try scorer for the Lions. He went on two tours in 1955 to South Africa and 1959 to New Zealand. O’Reilly played 15 games during the 1955 tour, scoring 16 tries.
He followed this up with a further 22 tries in 23 games in 1959. These included test tries against South Africa in the first and forth test in ’55 and in two test wins against Australia and New Zealand in ’59.
12. Mike Gibson (Ireland)
Probably one of the smartest players ever to take to the field. This, combined with his pace and skill, made Gibson the definitive centre.
He went on tour an astounding five times from 1968 to 1977, equaling compatriot McBride’s record. It was his exploits in midfield in 1971, though, which stand apart as his best games for the Lions.
13. Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
Probably the best player ever produced by Ireland, O’Driscoll was Lions captain on the ill-fated 2005 series that saw his tour cut short in a controversial manner.
His cutting runs in Australia four years previous were instrumental in getting the series win. He toured again in 2009 and 2013. This made him only the third player in 125 years of Lions history to go on tour four times.
14. Gerald Davies (Wales)
Another tri-grand slam winner, Davies toured in ’68 and ’71. He was able to combine unbelievable pace with a sidestep that left defenders stupefied in his wake. He used this to devastating effect on tour in 1971.
15. JPR Williams (Wales)
The last of the trio of three times Welsh grand slam winners to make the cut, Williams is regarded by some, including Lions legend Ian McGeechan, as the greatest to ever wear the red shirt.
Another player form the famous ’71 and ’74 touring sides, he’ll forever be remembered for his match-winning drop goal in the fourth test in 1971. His presence under the high ball and counter kicking were stupendous and put the Lions on the front foot.
So there we have it, six Irish, five Welsh, three English and one Scot.
Do you think there’s anyone hard done by, though? Will anyone from this year’s tour side put their hands up for inclusion?
Only time will tell ahead of the action kicking off in June.
Eoin Neylon, Pundit Arena