Who better to dish the dirt on the Lions than the players themselves? Suited up by Thomas Pink, the cream of British and Irish rugby talk to Ben Isaacs about each other’s lookalikes and large noses.
Do you remember what you were doing on 28 June 1997? A group of British and Irish rugby players will never forget: a thrilling 18-15 win ensured a series victory over South Africa. A triumph that’s not happened since.
But optimism reigns ahead of the team’s upcoming tour of Australia (which actually starts with a match against The Barbarians in Hong Kong on 1 June). These are the men who will write a glorious new chapter in Lions history, say the experts. That’s all well and good, but who are they?
To find out, we tagged along as the squad scraped off the mud, tried on their new Thomas Pink suits and spilled the beans on their teammates…
Scrum-half, England, Leicester
ShortList says: Following a man-of-the-match-winning performance against Australia at Twickenham in 2010, the scrum-half has been an England regular. His form at Leicester indicates he’ll be a fixture for years to come.
Tom Croft says: “He’s the epitome of Norfolk. He’ll believe anything you say. We once told him staff at Alton Towers don’t get paid, they just pick up the change that falls out of people’s pockets when they go on a roller coaster. He was amazed [shakes head]. When we were on tour in Australia having oysters, he started eating them and said, ‘Cor, I’ve never had mussels before’.”
Flanker, England, Leicester
ShortList says: This will be Croft’s second taste of Lions rugby – he was a late replacement in 2009, but managed to score a pair of tries against South Africa.
Ben Youngs says: “I’m a nice guy so I’m going to say he’s a nice guy, despite what he said about me. He’s exceptionally talented, very fast, but does spend a lot of time standing around on the wing. He’s getting married this summer, so he’s hoping the rest of his hair doesn’t fall out.”
Wing, Ireland, Ulster
ShortList says: The Ulsterman has proved himself to be one of the northern hemisphere’s most exciting players, and has scored more tries (50) than anyone in the history of the Rabo Pro 12. The emergence of Wales’ George North means competition for places on the wings will be fierce, but Bowe’s performances in South Africa four years ago – where he came second in Player Of The Series voting – only enhance his chances.
Sean Maitland says: “What an awesome player. I first watched him play for Ireland when I was in New Zealand. He’s got Lions experience and I can’t wait to learn from him.”
Flanker, Wales, Cardiff
ShortList says: Lions captain, Warburton, who played football with Gareth Bale when they attended the same school, asks players to call him ‘Warby’ rather than ‘skipper’, and told coaches to only put him in the test XV if his form warrants it. This meritocratic approach should play well in a squad of high achievers and big personalities. The 14 other Welshmen in the squad love his no-nonsense attitude and workrate; the rest soon will.
Leigh Halfpenny says: “Recent performances have spoken for themselves. He’s been outstanding, hasn’t he? He’s a born leader. I’ve been around him since I was about 16, both as a teammate and an opponent. I prefer him as a teammate.”
Full-back, Wales, Cardiff
ShortList says: His 24 years belie a wealth of big game experience, including stunning performances in both domestic and European cup final victories with Cardiff in 2009 and 2010. But his greatest feat may be his displays in the 2013 6 Nations. No player goes into this tour in better international form.
Sam Warburton says: “[Looks across at Leigh] Um… the best player I’ve ever played with [laughs]. He was player of the tournament in the 6 Nations and I hope he can match that form. If he gets close to replicating it, he’s a contender for Player Of The Series on this tour.”
Hooker, Wales, Ospreys
ShortList says: The distinctively groomed big man has, by his own admission, suffered some “dark” days thanks to injuries and inconsistent play. That will feel like a lifetime ago now because his performances in 2013 are a major reason Wales retained their 6 Nations crown. Having never previously been picked for consecutive test matches, the Neath-born hooker started all four of Wales’ wins in the tournament and to no one’s surprise became a Lion in the process.
Sam Warburton says: “He calls himself Patrick Swayze but he’s more like Fatrick Swayze. He’s one of the most committed players you’ll ever line up with.”
Full-back, Ireland, Leinster
ShortList says: Voted the European Player Of The Year in 2012, Kearney is one of the most reliable full-backs in the sport. Leigh Halfpenny looks to be ahead of him in the race for a spot on the test team this year, but the fearless Dubliner certainly shouldn’t be counted out. He was not only an impressive addition to the Lions squad four years ago, but is also a massive reason for Leinster’s recent emergence as a preeminent Heineken Cup team – three titles since 2009.
Sam Warburton says: “Kearney is always very difficult to play against, especially under the high ball. I’m really excited to be playing with him.”
Flanker, Wales, Ospreys
ShortList says: Perhaps the fact that Tipuric was included in the Lions squad, while fellow flankers Chris Robshaw and Ryan Jones (who captained their countries a combined eight times in the 2013 6 Nations) are twiddling their thumbs at home, says more about the player than video analysis ever will. Despite being a quiet man from a village in the Valleys, he is never overawed on the international stage. His openside partnership with Warburton – formed when Dan Lydiate got injured – was the reason Wales’ back row managed to destroy England in the 6 Nations decider. The Lions could do worse than throwing the pair together again.
Richard Hibbard says: “He’s got a hell of a conk, hasn’t he? [laughs]”
Wing, Scotland, Glasgow
ShortList says: The born and bred New Zealander has only been playing in the northern hemisphere since late last year, and qualifies via Glaswegian grandparents. His international career started at Twickenham in the 6 Nations and was only nine minutes old when he scored a try. He was a surprising selection for the tour, but he’s quickly become one of Scotland’s most dynamic players, and had considerable success in the southern hemisphere, having won the 2008 IRB Junior World Championship with New Zealand.
Sam Warburton says: “I first came up against him at the U20 level when he represented New Zealand and they beat us in the semis. Luckily he’s on our side this time.”
Thomas Pink is the official outfitter to the British & Irish Lions; thomaspink.com
(Images: David Clerihew)