Lions’ clash with Barbarians gives Hong Kong slice of history
Tonight’s match against Baa-Baas is as much about the history of 15s as their on-pitch rivalry
When the Lions take to the pitch tonight against the Barbarians, it will be an unprecedented opportunity for fans in Hong Kong to see some of the world's top rugby players in action.
It will also be about the Lions tuning up for their tour of Australia, as well as educating local fans on the nuances of 15-a-side rugby in a town that primarily knows and loves the sevens format. But more than anything, this match will be about history because there are few teams in any sport that carry the unique background and tradition of the Lions.
"Although rugby is a world game, not everybody knows about rugby, and not everybody understands the traditions behind the Lions tours," said former Lion and England international Peter Winterbottom. "One of our roles is to educate fans around here what this is all about."
Winterbottom had two tours with the Lions in 1983 and 1993 - both to New Zealand - and is in Hong Kong as an ambassador for DHL, one of the core sponsors, along with another former Lions player Mike Teague.
"We hope to impart and be involved in what the Lions stand for," said Teague, who toured in 1989 (Australia) and 1993.
What the Lions stand for, it seems, is an unprecedented collaboration of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh teamwork.
"One of the nice things with the Lions is that for four years the Welsh supporters and Scottish supporters and the Irish supporters hate the English," said Winterbottom. "And then, when you go on tour, it all changes.
"They all want to support you. You sort of immediately lose that national identity, and it's not about English or the Welsh, it's about the Lions."
It would be safe to assume that there would be tales of divisions and acrimony among all the various nationalities, but Teague claims nothing could be further from the truth.
"It's just purely and simply about that badge and the legacy that has been left over from those guys who came before us," he said. "And just like us, these guys today are going to want to be a part of history, part of the history that is being created by the Lions.
"It is a unique brand, there is nothing like it."
With such an eclectic grouping, though, the team's composition will always come under scrutiny, and this year's squad seems to have an inordinate amount of Welsh players.
"There is a political thing, but to be fair, most of the time the rule of thumb is they will try to pick who they think are the best players," said Teague.
For most members of the Lions, making the squad is the pinnacle of their career.
"Now that the game has gone professional, touring every four years is quite infrequent for the players in the UK, and it's something to actually be involved with, you to be both lucky and good," said Winterbottom.
Teague added: "On the flip side for these young guys in Australia, if they don't make it on this team, they won't get a chance again for another 12 years, so they basically have no chance of playing in this."
Both Winterbottom and Teague also feel the fixation around Hong Kong on sevens is natural considering the dynamic make-up of the city's annual event and the accessibility for viewers. The fact that sevens will bring rugby into the Olympics in 2016 is a bonus as well.
"Fifteens is such a physical game, you couldn't cram it into a two-week window like the Olympics," said Teague. "But sevens is such a fantastic spectacle that it's a great way of promoting the game, and anybody who does not see that is missing the point."
The two veterans both narrowly missed out on the beginning of professionalism in rugby. And while the ancient camaraderie seems somewhat diluted now, Teague feels that this Lions tour will be a watershed moment.
"It's crossed over into the professional era now, and sometimes you think it's all moved on," he said. "But I went to watch the Lions train recently, and I was just blown away at how fit and fast these guys are.
"I think the interest of this tour will be that there is no combination of amateur and professional players any more," Teague added. "It is totally professional now and we are all waiting to see how they perform against the professionals in Australia."
Neither former player seems embittered, either, about having missed out on a lucrative playing career because of the era in which they toiled. In fact, it seems like just the opposite.
"It was always pointed out to me that we had more than the guys before us, and these guys will have more than us," said Teague. "But it was far better to be part of the Lions and these tours than to not have been.
"And whatever hardships we may have dealt with, you wouldn't change a thing about it," he said. "The people you meet and the friends you make for life, it's irreplaceable."