The British & Irish Lions: The Last Great Sporting Romance

History, legend, folklore: That is what awaits the Lions squad as they head down under to face the Aussies. The union of rival nations and on-the-field enemies into one 37-man squad is what sets the Lions tour apart as sport's greatest romance...
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History, legend, folklore: That is what awaits the Lions squad as they head down under to face the Aussies. The union of rival nations and on-the-field enemies into one 37-man squad is what sets the Lions tour apart as sport's greatest romance...

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Somewhere in a Hong Kong hotel room, presumably not flicking through the Sky and measuring out the miniatures is a 24 year old man with 125 years of history coating his every intonation, that man is Sam Warburton and he leads the British & Irish Lions through the aforementioned Hong Kong and onto Australia with an eventual 3 date test-series against the green and gold of its national team.

The Lions are special and the legends go with it, every four years the cream of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales combine to face one of the Southern Hemisphere Rugby superpowers, and if you were to refer to your text books you'll notice they come home largely unsuccessfully. But romance and sport are rarely that simple, mention the Lions to any rugby fan and watch as the eyes get misty and lower lip starts to wobble. In many ways it's a premise set up to fail, bringing together 37 players, who far from being strangers are bred to revel in the animosity that floats between and who habitually administer pain upon one another that would make nearby flowers wilt. On top of that you make them tour in the harshest rugby environments known to man. But it's the Lions, where logic comes a long and distant second to the matters of an oval shaped heart

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The reason the Lions are special is that it's unique to its sport, the combination of enemies forging friendships four years apart doesn't happen anywhere else. An exception could be pointed in the direction of Team G.B Footballs squad for the London Olympics, but that's just smart-arsed based poppy-cock, because what's not in doubt is the Lions are the pinnacle of their sport. The closest conceivable comparison is most likely the Ryder Cup, but you're hardly likely to see Colin Montgomery dump tackling Tiger Woods into bunker are you?

The key with the Lions is it's not just 37 of the squad that make up its mystery, but rather the legends woven into its fabric. In some shape or form the Lions have been in existence since 1888, where travel to the Southern Hemisphere would take weeks and tours could last well into the months, initially playing 35 games as opposed to just the 10 Warburton’s Warriors will need to negotiate. Crucially the Lions straddled the birth of the sports move to professionalism, even though the Lions can now resemble a Rock n Roll tour mixed with a traveling show, it's the link to the past that keeps its prestige intact. In '74, against heavy opposition from protesters, the Lions went on tour to a South Africa in the grip of Apartheid, side-stepping the politics and focusing on the sport the Lions were determined to not be physically intimidated, if fists started to fly captain Willie John McBride would bellow the '99' call, which once heard instructed the Lions to punch their nearest Springbok, the thinking being the referee couldn't send off all 15 of the them, with the Lions eventually going on to win the series 3 - 1 and gaining the respect they deserved. The tactics employed weren’t strictly in the spirit of the game, but it's these tales and countless others that will be proclaimed by bar-stool preachers across this coming summer.

The modernisation of the British Lions since their first professional tour of 1997 has done much to bind them tighter into fans affection. Each tour has produced its own warts and all documentary showing the team from inception through to completion. Initially released on VHS the 97 tour ‘Living with the Lions' has since past into folklore with its characters attaining hero status and the motivational speeches becoming part of rugby's literary canon. 2013's tour will be no different and being the first one to fully integrate with social media the access, and more likely the potential for embarrassment, is a greater than ever.

This series in particular presents a problem: without a win in 16 years and playing the perceived weakest team in the Tri-Nations the pressure is on to deliver. With a thousand concertos still to be played out, places won and places lost, collisions so hard they're sure to bruise even those observing and with Johnny's shadow looming long, the tour is officially underway. In a sport prone to romance the Lions are rugby's very own marriage, a union close to poetry, proceeding into the inevitable battle that lays ahead.