With the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand the first time the iconic side has faced the All Blacks in 12 years, Pundit Arena caught up with four 2005 tourists from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland to get their thoughts on their experiences and what they hope for this summer.
PA: What did it mean to you to be selected for the Lions?
SB: “It was something that I never dreamt of. When I had all the targets in my life, the Lions was something I never really thought of. That was something for guys like Willie John McBride – legends of the game – you never really thought of it. All I thought about was playing for Ireland, but I was in the right place at the right time and to get the call from [2005 Lions tour manager] Bill Beaumont… I didn’t believe it was him, but it was absolutely amazing. When you hear the words that ‘you are now a Lion’, it’s something else.”
CC: “Getting capped for Scotland was my dream growing up, and getting picked for the Lions a year later was unexpected; it was an amazing experience.”
AT: “It was such an honour to play for the Lions that I took so much from it. The coaching experience from various international coaches, playing and socialising with other members of the squad, touring NZ and seeing the challenge that lay ahead in every game we played. It was such an amazing part of my career that it will always be remembered.”
PA: What will make 2017 such a challenge for the Lions?
CC: “On the face of it, 2005 was by far the hardest tour in living memory. Every single provincial team you face is strong, and it’s such a big deal in New Zealand to have the Lions over there and so they put everything into it. The provincial games will be tough and after that you’re playing the All Blacks, the best rugby team in the world. The interest amongst the public and the media scrutiny is incredibly intense.”
SB: “The standard of rugby out there is excellent, they really do learn from the games that you play every week. Our tour in 2005 was one of the most successful tours leading up to the tests, but [the All Blacks] learnt from those games.
“In New Zealand the whole nation’s psyche is all about the All Blacks beating the Lions. For other countries that the Lions do tour it is huge for them and we all talk about how much of an honour it is for us as Lions, but it is a massive thing for these guys. It is such a stretch in between when these guys get their chance. You can have a full international career and never get a chance to play against the Lions. So for these guys, whether at provincial level or having that black jersey on their backs, these are huge games.”
PA: Where did it the Lions go wrong in 2005?
AT: “I think certain aspects could have been slightly different like mixing the midweek and weekend teams up more but in my opinion we were beaten by a better side that were more clinical and ruthless during the 3 tests.”
MO: “I think the separation of the squad didn’t work [in 2005] although we did win all the midweek games. It was a decent idea which didn’t work in practice as we all had very different tours and failed to have that shared experience. We should have been more competitive than we were but didn’t develop a coherent style of play so we could challenge what was a great New Zealand team.”
PA: What do you think about the squad that Warren Gatland has selected?
MO: “It’s a great squad; there is so much strength in depth. I would have liked to have seen Garry Ringrose and Christian Wade picked. I am also a big fan of the Gray brothers and Launchbury, but I’m not sure who should have been left out for them to be included.”
AT: “I think there are some fantastic players on that tour, some of whom know how to win and win a series. There is a great coaching set up and their passion for the game comes out in the way they deliver and get their players to play.”
PA: Finally, can the Lions make history and win the series?
AT: “Of course they can. Any test series is going to be hard and New Zealand is looked upon as the most difficult. They are currently ranked number 1 in the world so that’s the challenge that lays before the Lions.”
MO: “Wales were superb in New Zealand last summer, but New Zealand won the first two tests with devastating 10 minute spells. The Lions will need to use their bench early and effectively to counter this. They could lose a warm up game as the provincial teams are so good and will need to be resilient if this happens. The coaching team is very experienced in terms of Lions tours so we have a great chance.”
SB: “Yes is the answer. There’s more success coming from the northern hemisphere against the southern hemisphere. But it’s really important that the Lions stop going down to sides that normally beat northern hemisphere teams.”
CC: “Going over there is such a big challenge, but I think there’s enough talent and good players and I have no doubt that we can win over there, but it doesn’t really get any tougher.”
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena