OPINION
Coach’s Corner
by

Even England villains like Will Carling welcome in Scottish lounge rooms as British & Irish Lions’ magic brings foes together

Former Scotland international Andy Hall – now Hong Kong assistant coach – reflects on his earliest memories of rugby’s most captivating side

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 3:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 3:04pm

The year of my first concrete memory of the British & Irish Lions was 1993. I recall my dad cheering far more fervently than usual at the television and, as a proud Scot, was astonished to see him supporting a side containing England’s Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott!

There must be something very special about this team, I thought. I remember plastering my schoolbooks top to toe in Lions heroes including the likes of the Hastings brothers – Gavin and Scott – Scott Gibbs and Scottish prop Paul Burnell.

I even made room for some of the English players (albeit on the back covers) with my dad reassuring me that this was OK in a Lions year, with the understanding that normal service would be resumed post tour with Rob Andrew and Mike Teague et al being consigned to the rubbish bin thereafter!

The 1993 tour to New Zealand certainly captured my interest for the mystery and tradition of this historic team and the 1997 series to South Africa couldn’t come quickly enough.

The ‘97 Lions made history for a number of reasons and for a young impressionable player it was not until a few weeks after the series win that the Lions made their biggest impact on me.

If you haven’t watched Living with the Lions – the documentary following the 1997 tour – I cannot recommend it enough.

Nearly three hours of captivating behind-the-scenes footage that any rugby or sporting enthusiast would love.

From forwards coach Jim Telfer’s Churchillian speeches to rare training footage and the hilarious kangaroo court, Living with the Lions was a seminal rugby moment for me, furthering my intrigue in this magical team.

So why all the fuss? For those that, perhaps like me prior to 1993, are oblivious to the Lions, allow me to briefly paint the picture.

Established in 1888, the British & Irish Lions are the oldest touring team in the game. Made up of the four home unions (England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales), the Lions get together once every four years to take on the best of the southern hemisphere.

It is the ultimate sporting challenge and it is the “coming together” that makes the team so unique and special.

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For the vast majority of the time, players from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland take pleasure in knocking lumps out of each other in the annual Six Nations.

When the Lions come calling however these differences are parked, preconceived ideas are buried and nationalistic pride is focused on collaboration and building a team to take on the best sides in the world.

The fans also have a part to play. Never would a man from Glasgow be caught humming Swing Low, or a lady from Wexford singing Bread of Heaven and you’d be shocked hearing the tweed clad Twickenham West car park dwellers from Surrey cheering for “proud Edward’s army to be sent homeward to think again”.

However once the call for the Lions sounds, everyone sings the same tune whether from Birmingham or Ballymena, Cardiff or Crieff. No other sport is like it.

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Fast forward 24 years from my introduction to the Lions and they’re in New Zealand once more. Same place, but the tour couldn’t look more different.

Aside from the 40 or more playing squad, the travelling party would rival Beyonce’s entourage with medics, sport scientists, strength and conditioning coaches, media mangers and kit men.

Security staff, nutritionists, analysts and TV crew all make the Lions roar. While much has certainly changed, the seemingly insurmountable challenge of beating the best side on the planet remains.

My hopes for the series? I think the Lions have picked the best set of players ever brought together and going against the back-to-back world champions it needs to be.

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My heart says Lions but my head, even with Kieran Reid and Dane Coles in doubt, cries Black. This is the Lions though. This is the Lions with nearly 130 years of tradition. This is the Lions whose past warriors include legends such as Willie John McBride, Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams.

This is the Lions who were written off in much the same way back in 1997, but who defied the odds and came away victorious. With that history and passion and a pinch of Lions magic, who knows?