Some of my favorite memories involve the Lions. I’m not talking sporting memories, but all time good memories.
Before I go into specifics, and at the risk of the curse of the Spanish Inquisition, I think there’s two main reasons: Rarity and Ethnicity.
1- Rarity: The Lions tours only come round every four years and I reckon that its this rarity that in part makes them so special. You savour the experience and the memory because there won’t be another one just around the corner.
The world athletics champs used to be special, then they dropped the frequency and now its just another tournament. Whilst its still a great achievement to win a world championship belt in boxing, the proliferation of sanctioning bodies has devalued one of the most valuable titles in sport “World Heavyweight Champion”.
Coming back to the lions its the fact that the four year cycle breeds a narrative of their own is something special. Speculation over teams starts fully a year before. The team that was picked at the end of last year’s 6 nations would have been quite different to this one. It all builds the excitement towards the first kick off – and just as important in Rugby that first big hit that defines the match and the physical confrontation.
Shit. The Spanish Inquisition’s got me. There’s another one.
2 – Tradition / Historical Progression: The “99” call. Barry “King” John in 71. Robert Jones stepping on Farr-Jones. The truly frightening 1989 English policeman pack with the hard edge of scots and welsh. Campo and Ieuan Evans. Iron Mike Teague was just hard. Scott Gibbs twice. An NZ victory stolen by poor refereeing. My hero Dewi Morris. Rory Underwood burning up the All Blacks. The return of the League exiles. Martin Johnson 3 times. Jerry dropping the goal. Daws fooling the worlds 2nd best EVER scrum half with a terrible dummy (1-Edwards 2- Joost 3- daylight). Deadeye Ruprecht kicking SA to death. Jim Telfer’s Everest and Living with the Lions. BOD in the golden moments of youth. Jason Robinson, now you see me, now you don’t. Martin Johnson coming on as a sub after Macrae’s assault on ROG. Macrae leaving the field soon after. The assault on Richard Hill, the man so good they had to elbow drop him to the neck. 5 yard line out, 2 call catch and drive; that bastard plank stole it. Keith Wood, far more than a bald psycho. The abomination of SCW NZ tour. Enough said. Mike Phillips – hateful for Wales, a prince (there’s only one king) for the Lions. BOD and Roberts as the best centre partnership I’ve ever seen. Kearney mixing Gaelic football and Rugby to sublime effect. The Beast tamed by the Raging Bull. And then devastation for ROG, always at his best playing in red, but that’s for Munster, not the Lions.
Seriously, if you love sport, I dare you not to be moved at that list. That’s what the Lions have to live up to.
3 – Ethnicity. I’m half English and half Irish. For Rugby I support, in order, the Lions, Munster, England, London Irish. You can see the mix right there. The Lions are one of the only tribes, along with English Cricket, that I really passionately care for with no ambivalence. It brings together the people of our historically and ethnically complex islands of the NW coast of Europe and turns us into one tribe, with no reservations. I’m not sure there’s anything else that’s ever really done that. Ireland’s been fighting for independence for centuries. The Scots don’t want to do anything that was thought up by the English. The Welsh get screwed over by everyone. England is hated by everyone and on its own would be a Tory paradise that would be anathema to a trot like me.
But these are general issues that are petty much shared by many people in our islands. The millennia of interweaving means that we know each other very well and however much you dislike Westminster, you can come together for the Lions.
For me though, there are a couple of very personal memories that matter a lot to me, and why the Lions are my own personal Everest. The thing I look forward to for four years.
The Lions is one of my earliest vivid sporting memories. Spurs losing to Coventry comes close, as does England’s victorious cricket tour down under, where Botham was world class for the last time. Maybe the ’86 World Cup with Lineker’s bandaged hand and Maradona’s hand of god.
But I didn’t watch any of those in my dressing gown at 0730 in the morning with my Dad, with the volume low so we wouldn’t wake mum up. Dad was primarily a football (Millwall) and cricket (Surrey) supporter and whilst I’d watched a bit of rugby, he’d primarily tried to educate me at these two sports. But the Lions was different. Dad got up early to watch the games, which was strange, as he was a forex broker and was up at 0530 every morning and home late a lot. The man needed his sleep. I wasn’t allowed to get up that early normally so i didn’t wake him up. But he was excited about the series and he cared and he transmitted this to me. An impressionable young boy (I was 9, and what 9 year old boy doesn’t hero worship his Dad?) I lapped it up, loving the sport, and loving sharing it with my Dad.
The sport was brilliant, with some real moments of drama, most of which are mentioned above. Guscott’s blistering pace, the physicality of the England pack. Jones’ pass. Evans and Campese. More than anything however, the Lions pushed the Oz pack off their own ball on a 5 yard scrum. The score was close and the wasn’t much time left. The reason I remember it so clearly was because Dad talked me through why it was so important. The series coming down to a 5 yard scrum.
The ’97 lions is connected. I was obviously a lot older. A 17 year old that wasn’t particularly happy with life at a grammar school sixth form, apart from the sport. The game was on Sky and my Dad hates Murdoch so it wasn’t on in the house. Mum and Dad were away for the first game, so I went down the local and sat quietly in the corner of the public bar, drinking a few pints and loving the game, and most importantly the atmosphere. A quintessentially masculine atmosphere, there was more chat in the bar than I’d ever heard and I was involved. A boy in a man’s world and I loved it.
So the second game came round. I talked dad into coming to the pub with me to watch the game. I had to bend his arm. I asked, “Want to watch the Lions in the public bar?” He said “of course”. We watched one of the tensest, toughest, most perfect games of sport I’ve ever seen. Add in the beer, the pub where we did a lot of father-son bonding and the great atmosphere in the pub, which was (strangely) full of rugby players (look at the nose, ears and body shape, you can normally tell) we had never seen before. It was such a close game. The South Africans were probably the better side, but Neil Jenkins kicked everything, the Lions pack was heroic and every single Lions player put their bodies on the line. The total physicality and commitment was awe inspiring.
Then Guscott dropped his goal. And the pub rose as one. We cheered, we hugged. For that second we were all sharing a communion to the god of sport. I spilt some Guinness on the old man.
We shared the SA tour four years ago, and drowned our sorrows in Guinness and Light and Bitter, but last year I smiled at the way the dynamic had changed. We’re still father and son, but even four years ago, Dad appeared to have pretty much accepted me as a man. We were two mates down the local talking about a sport and concept (the lions) we both loved. I’d gone through a tough few years, but was turning the corner (meeting Kirsty, new job on the way) and I was in a busy boozer I knew well, drinking a lot of beer with my old man and loving it. So we lost. It was still great.
So the lions for me is a story about two Blewer men and their relationship as father and son, and the development of a friendship. I’ve still got to work out where we watch the game, how to introduce Kirsty into this dynamic (she’d never forgive me) and how long we can persuade Aidan to watch the game. I can’t wait to do the same with him as I did with Dad. Although I might have to get Sky to do that.