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Lions embrace next step in lasting legacy

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 29/05/2017 By Andrew Baldock

The British and Irish Lions' demanding 2017 New Zealand tour will provide confirmation of just how big the brand has become.

The Lions is not just about a collection of the best rugby players in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It has become a huge commercial entity in its own right.

Their current status, though, is all a far cry from when the Lions first set sail as rugby tourists in 1888 on a private enterprise trip to Australia and New Zealand.

No Test matches were played on that tour, but there was still a 35-game schedule to be tackled, including 19 matches when the Lions played a form of Australian Rules football, and the 1891 South Africa tour was the first officially-sanctioned Lions trip.

South Africa played a key role during the Lions' development years, welcoming them again in 1896, and by the time Australia was revisited in 1899 the tourists were a genuine mix of representatives from all four home unions.

It proved a memorable trip, with the Lions winning three out of four Tests and even playing additional games in Hawaii and Canada on their way home.

They were now established in global terms, and further successes against Australia followed, although New Zealand had emerged as their toughest opponents.

Such was New Zealand's status as a growing force that the 1908 tour saw more games being staged in that country than Australia, and the All Blacks delivered a standard by which the Lions found themselves judged.

Trips to South Africa and Argentina followed in 1924 and 1927, respectively, before New Zealand again showcased their power by beating the 1930 Lions in three successive Tests, while Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury also toppled the tourists.

After the Second World War, Irishman Jack Kyle - he remains the youngest captain in Lions history - led the tourists Down Under, where only six defeats from 29 starts were experienced in Australia and New Zealand. The highlight result was arguably a 9-9 draw against the All Blacks, who once again claimed three Test wins.

Robin Thompson's 1955 squad in South Africa suffered just five defeats in 25 games, drawing a gripping four-game Test series, and four years later in Australia and New Zealand another marathon trip produced only six losses from 35 starts, although three of those were against the All Blacks.

The 1950s will rightly be remembered as a sparkling decade for the Lions, but they could not build on that in 1962, losing three Tests against South Africa, or in 1966, when they came unstuck against New Zealand, and back to South Africa two years later, where another 3-0 series defeat ensued.

But it was the 1971 trip - captained by John Dawes and coached by his fellow Welshman Carwyn James - that lifted the Lions to new heights and will be remembered as their most famous tour of all.

A squad built around Wales' dream teams of the 1970s - players like Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams - secured a series win against the All Blacks - 2-1, with one draw - raising the bar for future tourists.

And the 1974 squad to South Africa, skippered by Irish lock Willie John McBride, gathered the baton brilliantly, going through a 22-game tour unbeaten, and it would have been a 4-0 Test series triumph had a controversial refereeing decision not helped the Springboks secure a draw in the final match.

Welshman Phil Bennett was at the helm when the Lions returned to New Zealand in 1977, but despite losing only one fixture outside of the Tests, the All Blacks avenged 1971 through winning three Tests and suffering a solitary defeat.

It was a similar story away from the Tests three years later, losing three times to South Africa, but winning 15 other games, and in 1983 a four-match Test series whitewash was the miserable return from another trip to All Black country.

By the time coach Ian McGeechan led the Lions to Australia in 1989, Test series success was long overdue, but they delivered. It was a short trip - just 12 games - and the Wallabies were downed 2-1.

The 1993 tour of New Zealand was the Lions' final excursion before rugby union's professional era began two years later. They lost the series 2-1, but then gained a 2-1, 1997 triumph in South Africa.

The Springboks were world champions and the Lions were given little hope, but they won in Cape Town and then - thanks to Neil Jenkins' prodigious goalkicking and a Jeremy Guscott drop-goal - in Durban against all odds to secure Test series glory a game early.

Tours to Australia (2001) and New Zealand (2005) saw the Lions gain a total of just one win from six Tests, and eight years ago in South Africa they also went down, losing 2-1 but arguably playing better rugby than their Springbok hosts.

Overdue success, though,, came on the Warren Gatland-coached 2013 trip to Australia and a 2-1 Test series triumph against the Wallabies.

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