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  Friday, 27 April, 2001, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
Lions in the new era
Finlay Calder playing for the Lions
Finlay Calder captained the Lions in Australia in 1989
The concept of having a rugby team made up of the four Home Unions came about as early as 1888, it was seen as a way for the Empire to take the sport back to 'the colonies'.

A group of cricketers put the first side together, but far from teaching 'the colonies' how to play the game, it would be fair to say that over the last century the pupils have become the masters.

In the 95 matches played between the Lions, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia - the Lions have won 37 - 14 of them in Australia, but just 17 out of 43 in South Africa and only six out of 35 in New Zealand.

The early Lions Tests never had the backing of the rugby football unions in Britain, in fact it wasn't until 1910 that the ruling body decided to throw its weight behind the idea.


God forbid they should ever take away the Lions tour, it is unique. Once you're a Lion you're always a Lion
Willie John McBride

The new era

Since then the Lions Tests have become a bastion of 'the great game', where legends have been made and great men of the sport have been humbled.

No other rugby tournament seems to invoke the same level of passion and support as the Lions do on their tours Down Under.

However with the advent of profesionalism many believed that this bastion may come to an end. In fact the last tour to South Africa in 1997 - the first in the profesional era - was widely expected to be the final fling.

But it was perhaps because of the outstanding success and achievement of this tour that the International Rugby Board agreed to future Tests.

Matt Dawson, the Lions scrum half in South Africa in 1997, thinks their performance did play a part.
Matt Dawson
Dawson played for the Lions in 1997

"People said at the time that it might be the last Test, that they (the South Hemisphere teams) were a little further ahead than what we were but that inspired us to do well.

"Nobody within the rugby fraternity wanted to see the Lions disappear and we were pleased to be part of revitalising the tours."

And Dawson points out that the huge amount of interest shown in the Lions tour this year just goes to prove how important the Lions are.

"You only have to ask the Australians, New Zealanders or South Africans who play against the British Isles and it's a huge thing for them because they get the chance to compare themselves to the elite of Northern Hemisphere rugby."

Ian Jones is one of those players. The ex-All Black lock, who now plays for Gloucester in the Zurich Premiership, played against the Lions in 1993. He believes Lions tours are a tradition that should continue.

"The Lions tours are always highly regarded in New Zealand, and it was always an honour to be selected to play against them.

"If anything, there should be more Lions tours to the Southern Hemisphere," he added.

Great rivalries

Willie John McBride, the most capped Lion of all time, who played in five Lions tours from 1962 to 1974 agrees that it would be a sad day for rugby if Lions tours came to an end.

"The professional era has changed our game but God forbid they should ever take away the Lions tour, I believe it is unique.

"You can always be a former international player but you're never a former Lion, that goes on forever.

"It's also a great training ground and great development ground, not only for rugby but for life, he said.


Nobody within the rugby fraternity wanted to see the Lions disappear
Matt Dawson

"It still creates great rivalries and great competitions."

And McBride, like many other of his generation believe that such tours will continue to help bridge the gap between Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby, which up until recently had promised to become the great divide.

Gavin Hastings, another former Lions captain, agrees that Lions Tests have a special place on the world rugby calendar.

"Everyone who has played for the Lions will say that it is different, it's special and long may people have that opportunity to take part in them."


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