Why you should care
Because this is the most passion you could ever squeeze into 80 minutes.
Welshman Sam Warburton is a rugby player with a physical and emotional presence far greater than his 6-foot-2, 227-pound frame. As captain, he will lead his team onto the pitch for a unique contest against the New Zealand All Blacks later this month, all of his players wearing the same blood-red uniform. But there’s something curious about this particular test match. The players in red are drawn from five different nations that are usually bitter sporting enemies: England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. For this special tour, the best players from across the British Isles share a jersey and unite as one.
Every four years, the British and Irish Lions visit one of the three Southern Hemisphere rugby giants — South Africa, Australia or New Zealand — in a series that culminates with three ferocious international clashes (after a couple of warm-up games against regional sides, where the hodgepodge Lions must quickly learn to jell with their unfamiliar teammates). This year’s tour to New Zealand, the reigning world champions, will no doubt be a challenge — the victorious 2013 tour to Australia was the first overall series win for the Lions since 1997.
Every man on the Lions’ starting 15 is an individual superstar in his home nation.
What makes the Lions tour so compelling? It’s a super-elite squad. Every position on a rugby team requires a specific shape, size, skill set or personality; one national team might have a couple of world-class players each year, but every man on the Lions’ starting 15 is an individual superstar in his home nation. “No other sporting event compares to a Lions tour,” says club-level player, coach and lifelong rugby nut Matty Williams, a diehard England fan for 47 of every 48 months. “It’s the highest level of rugby you could ever watch or play.” Great captains, from England’s Martin Johnson to Ireland’s Willie John McBride, go down as history’s best rugby players. And players that shine as a Lion on the pitch — such as Wales’ Gareth Edwards and Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll — become legends of the international game.
Known as the pinnacle of the sport, fans can expect a whole lot of passion inspired by the prestigious Lions jersey, which makes for compelling and intense viewing. Fans throng to it — the team is expected to attract upwards of 20,000 to join them on the 24-hour trip (with a four-figure price tag) to New Zealand. That’s about as many who followed their national teams to the country for the 2011 World Cup.
But don’t expect one of the most stirring elements of international sport: the pre-match national anthem. With five nations comprising one team, they’d be standing around all day singing.
Rugby is no stranger to odd national alliances: Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, despite a divisive history, have always played together as a united island. Go figure. These bizarre sporting arrangements are an accident of a history that left them behind long ago — both the Lions tour and the united Irish rugby team pre-exist Ireland’s independence from Britain. The global footprint of rugby today long survives the British empire that gave birth to it — the Lions toured South Africa just a year after the end of the Second Boer War, and Australia just three years after independence.
But the strange beauty of the Lions’ multinational conglomeration is what draws us to it. The Lions showcase the camaraderie and unifying power of sport beyond national borders — perhaps the only other example of multiple countries competing as one in major international sport is golf’s European Ryder Cup team. In a sport known for both the pride and the ferocity of its players, the “lions” could not be a more apt metaphor for this one-of-a-kind tour.
- June 3: The 2017 Lions tour kicks off against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.
- June 24, July 1 and July 8: The three main tests against the New Zealand All Blacks.
- All matches kick off at 7:35 p.m. local time.