Big game hunting

Boris Starling looks ahead to the excitement and exhilaration of the upcoming British Lions tour


This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

“This is your Everest. These four words are seared on the soul of every Lions fan. They were growled by Jim Telfer, the Hawick headmaster who was assistant coach on the 1997 tour to South Africa. His audience were the forwards who were about to take on the feared Springbok pack, and his words resonated because they articulated two wider truths: that the Lions are special, and that their tours to South Africa, the latest of which kicks off in Johannesburg on 3rd July, are the most special of all.

The Lions are an anachronism in rugby’s hyper-structured calendar, a throwback to days of great sporting adventure. They pick the best of the four home nations and demand those men put aside national rivalries for a higher cause. English white, Welsh red, Irish green and Scottish blue do battle every year, but they all find their place on the Lions strip.

The Lions are an anachronism in rugby’s hyper-structured calendar, a throwback to days of great sporting adventure

The Lions play almost all their matches thousands of miles from home. For all but two months every four years they don’t even really exist: suddenly they blaze into life and briefly become the brightest object in the firmament. They go to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in turn, a tiny army which must make like Hernán Cortés and burn their boats on the shore the moment they land, for faint hearts never won Lions Tests.

For a player, there is no honour higher. Sam Warburton, who captained the 2013 and 2017 tours, was given a 2005 replica jersey by his parents when he was 16. For months he wore it day in day out: then he put it in a drawer and vowed that the next time he wore one would be for real. Eight years later, the night before his first Test as captain in Brisbane, he laid the jersey on his bed and found that it took him three attempts to leave the room: the sacred tunic kept drawing him back for one last look. As Ian McGeechan, a Lion as player and coach, said, “The jersey comes alive. It demands more from you, as it has demanded more from all the others who have worn it before you. It’s the most personal jersey you can wear, as it asks different things of you. It reflects your character.”

And nowhere is character more tested than in South Africa.

Australia is a great place to play sport, but rugby union is third in the pecking order there behind rules and league, and so large parts of the country neither know nor care that the Lions are there. No such problem exists in New Zealand, of course, for whom rugby is somewhere between religion and national obsession: but the only whitewash either way of modern times came in 2005, when the All Blacks demolished the Lions 3-0.

South Africa, on the other hand, always brings the noise. The 1997 Lions squad, derided as the worst to leave Heathrow, turned out to be full of inspired picks, none more so than captain Martin Johnson. He had never led England and had only skippered his club Leicester a dozen times, but Telfer and McGeechan saw that this brooding monobrowed colossus was the titan they sought, and he repaid their faith in spades.

Matt Dawson dummied half the Springbok team and most of the Newlands crowd to rescue the first Test. A week later in Durban, the Lions found the wounded Springboks fighting for their lives. The Boks attacked without cease but the Lions held firm, and Jeremy Guscott’s drop goal in the dying minutes secured a series victory for the ages.

It will take more than a pandemic to reduce the magnitude of a savannah shootout between panthera leo and antidorcas marsupialis

2009 was no less seismic. In the first Test it was the Boks who came out of the traps quickest and the Lions who only just failed to run them down in a pulsating comeback. One of the greatest matches ever, said the papers, but it proved just a warm-up to the second Test. This time it was the Lions in front and the Boks pegging them back in the thin air of the highveld, a contest of such savage intensity that five Lions would finish the day in hospital.

With a minute to go it was 25-25, match and series in the balance: but then the Lions conceded a penalty which Morné Steyn kicked from inside his own half, and Smaug had nothing on the Lions’ desolation. They won the third Test, as the Boks had in 1997, but dead rubbers are hard to get excited about.

Now we are back in the Rainbow Nation. The Boks’ habit of winning World Cups at 12-year intervals means they again face the Lions as world champions. This tour will, of course, be different: no red seas of Lions fans in the stands, no carnival of travelling supporters. The Boks haven’t played a Test since winning the World Cup 18 months ago. But it will take more than a pandemic to reduce the magnitude of a savannah shootout between panthera leo and antidorcas marsupialis. This will be something special, because it always is. Fasten your seatbelts.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover