The Unlikeliest Lions


The Lions tour is special for so many reasons, but one of the biggest and best is there are invariably one or two players who seem to come from no-where and make a name for themselves. Having read Will Greenwood’s article this morning in which he discussed this phenomenon with perhaps the player who typifies it best – Ryan Jones – it got me thinking: who else has come out of no-where to feature in the test matches in recent years?

2001 Tour to Australia

Andy Nicol loves to tell the story of how he had been following the Lions on a supporters tour – not an entirely sober affair, I’m told – when he got the call to come and join the squad, duly finding himself on the bench for the last test. He never got on, thankfully for the Lions. Perhaps the most surprising member of the test squads for this tour was Martin Corry, who had been called up for the perennially unlucky Simon Taylor, a man who suffered horrible form with injuries. Corry had always been a club stalwart who had never quite translated his form onto the international stage, and had perhaps suffered from being too versatile, able as he was to play lock, blindside and no.8. Nevertheless, once called up he played in three warm-up games and impressed Graham Henry sufficiently to be called into the starting line-up for the first test – that historic win at the Gabba. He perhaps didn’t endear himself to the coach with a yellow card, and was subsequently benched for the second test before returning to the starting line-up for the series decider. Whatever happened, few would have had him featuring in all three tests before the tour started.

2005 Tour to New Zealand

This was the tour that heralded the emergence of one Ryan Jones, at the time a scrappy back-rower who had only made his Wales debut the previous November. He is perhaps the best example of a player who came in and excelled when no-one really expected him to. Who was the man unlucky enough to be replaced? Simon Taylor, yet again. Off the books at Bath now after a few seasons in the West Country, it is tempting to wonder just how good he could have been if injuries had not taken their toll. Anyway, Jones got his shot and took it with some aplomb. He joined the tour quite late on, and was thrust into the starting line-up against Otago, a game in which he scored a try. This was enough to get him onto the bench for the first test, and after impressing from there he started both the second and third tests. It wasn’t a successful tour by any means, but Jones’ emergence was undoubtedly one of the positives.

On a side note, Ollie Smith (remember him?) was also capped on that tour, in the game against Argentina – a match which was decided to be worthy of a cap some time later. He played no further part on the tour (in terms of game time, anyway), but surely has to go down as one of the most random tourists ever.

2009 Tour to South Africa

There were a few surprise inclusions in this squad (Keith Earls springs to mind – an experiment it’s fair to say backfired somewhat), but none that really jump off the page. Perhaps the man who seized his opportunity best was Tom Croft – a player many suspect will play a role in the tests again this tour – who was only called up as a replacement for the banned Alan Quinlan. He was far from experienced at this point, having only made his international debut the previous year, but this perhaps worked in his favour with his pace and strong support lines catching the South Africans unawares, and leading to him scoring two tries in the opening test.

Lee Mears is another man you easily forget once played for the Lions – he started that first test, but was subsequently dropped after the South African front row dominated. And then of course there is Ricky Flutey, of Kiwi decent, who had only recently made his bow for England and became the only man to have played both for and against the Lions, having lined up for the Maori on their previous tour of New Zealand.

2013 Tour to Australia

Who knows? The beauty of it is only Gatland knows who is in his plans and who isn’t. Popular standby options at the moment seem to include Chris Robshaw, Jonny Wilkinson and Tom Wood, with the second man on that list particularly likely to feature at some point. It would be quite a story if Jonny were to return Down Under and thwart the Aussies on their turf once again. Injuries are part and parcel of the game and there are invariably a few people who will be desperately unlucky and have to fly home at some point. Of course, there are players already on the tour who have the chance to propel themselves to stardom having only recently become internationals as well – Sean Maitland and Mako Vunipola spring to mind.

So, who will be this tour’s Ryan Jones (apart from, potentially, Ryan Jones himself)? Is there anyone you are backing to come out of no-where and make a name for themselves?

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

18 thoughts on “The Unlikeliest Lions

  1. In fairness to Mears he had been in very good form for England and on the tour. His selection was more a surprise just because, having spent the whole build up talking about the size of the South African pack and how we needed to match them physically, picking the smallest hooker in international rugby didn’t really make sense.

  2. In reference to Andy Nicol; “…thankfully for the lions, he never got on?” How so? Matt “I dont get picked for the first test so im going to bitch out the lions Dawson” was a stronger choice? Dawson is a baldy prick and shone only due the quality of players around him. Same applies to Austin Healy.

    Also taking Ketih Earls in ’09 was not a backward step, he scored the winner against the cheetahs and a scorcher of a try against junior springbocks. That tour cemented him as a starter for munster and Ireland. How is that a backward step?

    1. The story goes that Nicol’s urine sample given after that match confirmed he was drug free, but not fit to drive a car…hence a good thing that he didn’t get on!

    2. Also since when was Earls a cemented starter for Ireland? I am pretty sure he is there utility back who fills in when needed. I think when people look back at Lions tours, they remember the Tests, which he didn’t play in. And although he did score two tries, one of which was excellent, he was also very poor in his first tour game against a team who has slipped my mind at the moment.

      Also, Dawson was a class scrum half, winning a world cup and going on three Lions tour, so to suggest a drunken Andy Nichol would have been better in nonsense.

  3. richard strauss if a hooker gets injured could get a test match on hard soil he is immense. zebo might get a call up if theirs a back 3 injury but my money is on tommy bowe to do some serious damage on the right wing.

    1. Any chance of Wade getting a call-up if there’s an injury? Probably not

      Jason Robinson was a pretty left-field choice. Only a few months after his union debut and I think he’d only got a cap or 2 for England

      Will Greenwood was uncapped when picked for the Lions.

      But John Bentley was probably THE most unusual choice and of course, one that proved inspired.

      PS – Andy Nichol admits in interviews that he was not in any kind of shape to be playing international rugby when they called him up

  4. It’s such a good set of forwards it’s a really tough ask for any late call ups to force their way in. Those that possibly could Corbs (looked excellent against the Barbarians), Ryan Grant, Launchbury or what about Ryan Jones again …. that would be some story!

    If someone is to come from nowhere I think it will be a player who produces some magic in the back line, e.g. Zebo or Wade.

    Of those in the squad I’m going for Mako Vunipola to be the shock breakthrough player. Quade Cooper will need all his side stepping skills to get out of the way of that monster.

    1. i think that a few more forwards could step up and produce some pretty decent performances. i agree with all of the names that you have said, but i think that a couple more from each country could do some damage.

      Morgan, Robshaw and Wood from England.
      O’Mahony, Ryan or Ross from Ireland.
      Hamilton, Ford, Brown from Scotland. even though his form is poor, denton in full flight is a sight to behold too.
      I would say some welsh, but other than Ryan Jones, i think all the viable forwards who are fit are on tour already. Maybe could stretch to Charteris (is he fit) and Coombs or possibly Owens, but are they better than the available options from other nations?

      A few of these could step up and have very big impacts (Morgan, Corbs, Launchbury). Others can have very important (but possibly less visible) impacts (Wood, O’Mahony, Ryan, Brown and Jones)

      it is probably pretty easy to make a whole squad of who could be backups.

      Twelvetrees could do some good if something happens to a centre (especially if its BOD).

    2. I think you’re right about Vunipola. Showed some great form for both Sarries and England, but I feel he could well keep Healy or Jenkins on the bench for the tests. Him and Jones could destroy the Aussies scrum with their low centres of gravity.

      The other player I can see having a great tour is Maitland. Showed some good supporting lines for Scotland in the 6N, and with better ball and support, I can see him surprising a few people.

      1. I’m not sure Vunipola is the man to destroy anyones scrum; that is his main weakness.

        I would be on Healy started because he offers a lot more at scrum time. Vunipola will bench though as he offers great ball carrying impact.

        1. He’s got the physical attributes to dominate, his technique is a bit hit and miss. But looking at his rate of development (which time with the likes of Adam Jones can only help accelerate) it would not surprise me to see Vunipola, Hibbard & Jones as the first choice starters by the 3rd test. Agree his initial role is likely to be impact sub, just have a hunch the impact will be so great we’ll see more and more of him as the tour goes on.

  5. I think that in answer to your question as to who would be the unlikeliest Lion, my answer is now probably Dylan Hartley! Sorry, couldn’t resist. Personally I think that Matt Stevens is probably top of the list as unlikely, but you never know, if the Aussies can’t scrimmage (and I think that they will be better than we think in that department), and if Stevens gets around the park in the warm up games and pigs start flying…… it could all add up. That or Robshaw answering a back row injury crisis!

  6. Was in Oz in ’01&NZ in ’05..The other part of the Andy Nicol 3rd test story is the other International scrum-half on a supporters tour also in the frame..seemingly Nicol was a little more sober than Rupert Moon..(neither possibly as good as Dawson,[who endeared himself to no-one in 2001]but he himself was nowhere near Howley) I just hope they get selection right this time,Adam Jones is seen as a Lions stalwart yet the last series was lost in the 1st test when he wasn’t playing and our scrum was not ‘dominated’ but ‘destroyed’..

  7. Sean Maitland, not many had him down for the squad and knows about playing rugby down under

  8. So, in tomorrows match, Elliot Daly has a blinder running in a couple and setting up a couple more. Jonathan Davies gets injured, and Gatland makes an inspired decision to replace him with Daly, who duly runs through Australia.

    Unlikely? Certainly it is, but centre is not a particular position of strength in back-ups.

    1. 30 plus degree heat combined with the humidity, not a day for 16 and 17 stone juggernauts who haven’t played much rugby for a while. Think a few of the lions may be pretty flat footed by the end and someone like Daly may well expose them …. think 36 will be the next cab off the rank for the centres regardless though!

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