The British and Irish Lions are a team steeped in history and tradition, and with the squad announcement just around the corner we will soon know the players that will be involved in writing the next chapter in this superb sporting story.
One man already to have been written into the Lions legend is Scott Quinnell, the Welsh stalwart who went to Australia himself in 2001 and knows only too well the pressures that come with touring down under. The Lions got off to a winning start that year, and the image of Quinnell cheekily nodding his head under the posts having crashed over the line in that first test is a fond one for all British and Irish fans (see below). It was the support, however, that he insists made that day so special. “I was lucky enough to score a try in that first test,” he says, “but the bit that sticks out in my memory was when we walked out up the steps into the Gabba and we suddenly hit this sea of red – 35,000 Great Britain and Irish fans overwhelmed Brisbane that day, overwhelmed the Gabba and overwhelmed Australia. It was a special moment to be a part of.”
Travelling support is a vital part of any touring party, but what sets the Lions apart from your regular national tours? “You beat each other up for four years, and then you come together for a six or seven week period to play with the guys that you respect so much – the elite of Britain and Ireland,” affirms Quinnell. “It’s a wonderful place to be, to mingle and get to spend some time with the guys from the other nations, and to know you’ve played your part in the history of the Lions as well. That’s something very, very special.”
Turning to the current crop, Quinnell says he does not envy the tough decisions facing Gatland – starting with the captaincy issue. “For Warren to pick a captain that guarantees a starting position at the moment could be very difficult,” he claims. “That’s not a negative – in fact it’s a positive because so many players are playing well.”
He says there are two options that stand out for him, however. “I’m torn between Sam Warburton and Brian O’Driscoll,” he says. “Brian’s the type of captain that if he didn’t make the test side, he’ll still be wonderful in that environment. As a tour captain, I think he would be invaluable with his experience.”
The chance to tour with the Lions is often one that doesn’t come around more than once – Quinnell himself was selected for the ’97 trip only to be ruled out by injury. So what does he make of the current crop of injury-laden players, particularly those returning in the back-row? “You look at Dan (Lydiate), and to come back from the injuries he’s had is a wonderful effort and he’ll be in the mind of the selectors,” claims Quinnell. “But I think the guy who’s come back and has made the most impact is Tom Croft. He’s been wonderful; he’s such an athletic line-out forward and he’s a superb athlete, and I’m sure he’ll make the tour party.”
The back-row is certainly shaping up to be the most competitive area, and Quinnell thinks it all comes down to the type of game the Lions are looking to play. “If you want to play a quick and open game you could play Tipuric at 7, but if you’re going to play it a bit tighter you could play Warburton there with Croft at 6 as a line-out forward,” he says. “Then there’s O’Brien, who could play himself into test selection as well – the one thing that he brings is a totally different aspect to the game because he’s such an explosive ball-carrier.”
And what of their opponents? Australia have experienced plenty of off-field issues recently, but their franchises are going steadily in the Super 15 and a lot of their key players have returned from injury. Quinnell makes the excellent point that the opportunity to play the Lions is one that comes around so rarely for the Southern Hemisphere nations that players are champing at the bit to make the team. “Australia are always one of those sides that come good. The one thing people forget about Lions tours is they (Australia) have 12 years to prepare. They’ve had camps and they’ve had training sessions, and the squad will come together and they will be all focused on that first test in Brisbane.”
That said, Quinnell is still backing the Lions to get the monkey off their back that has been there since 1997. For the Lions to remain relevant, some argue, it is essential that they win. “I’m sure they will – it’s probably going to be 2-1. Australia is a hugely proud nation and it’s been a long season.”
And of course as a proud Welshman, he very much enjoyed the final weekend of the Six Nations. He is cautious, however, in predicting that result to change Gatland’s selection plans too greatly. “I’m sure the mentality that Wales had for the last game won’t have gone unnoticed. That will be in his mind slightly, but I’m sure Warren won’t get carried away with one game. He’ll pick the side that he believes will go down and beat Australia.”
It is a monumentally important tour for the Lions in terms of needing to win, but it is also great to hear legends like Quinnell extolling its virtues anyway. The fact that players who, as Quinnell says, beat each other up season after season can come together and bond so quickly is testament to rugby and its values. All that’s left now is getting that much-needed victory.
Scott Quinnell was speaking at Felinfoel RFC to launch NatWest RugbyForce 2013, the community rugby programme that is improving club facilities across Wales. To find out more or register your rugby club for the NatWest RugbyForce Weekend visit www.natwest.com/rugbyforce.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43