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James Haskell: Magic of the Lions transcends everything

Jeremy Guscott's drop goalAs the end of this season approaches, the elephant is in the room. The topic being touched upon with baited breath in all the sports sections of all the newspapers:  what for me is the pinnacle of rugby, the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia.

From my perspective one of the greatest and most satisfying things you can achieve in your rugby career, is to represent your country. It was a dream come true for me; the moment I pulled on that white shirt with all it stands for: honour, passion and hard work.

As I ran onto the field against Wales in the Millennium Stadium in 2007, at just 21 years of age, I knew the emotions and memories will stay with me forever.

However, it is my belief that selection for the Lions transcends even this and elevates representation onto a whole new level. There can be no higher honour in rugby terms, than being invited to tour with the Lions squad. So very few achieve this accolade, that the mere whisper of it has rugby players squirming in their seats with excitement and anticipation.

No player dares to look that far forward, or even hint it is something remotely in their thinking. The wily journalist tries to coax a response from a particular player, potentially ear-marked for the tour. They want a quote along the lines of how much the player is looking forward to going on the Lions tour.

This is where the trusty ebuttal, “We only focus on one game at a time”, becomes commonly used, as a method to side-step the issue. However human nature being what it is, anyone who has the remotest contention cannot but help have the odd moment of private reflection as to what it would be like.

I never viewed a vast amount of sport or rugby when I was much younger. My earliest memories of the Lions was watching the amazingly talented Jeremy Guscott kick that fabulous drop-goal against South Africa on the 1997 tour.

However, once I caught sight of this spectacle called the Lions, I had to know more. So I spent a lot of time while at school in 1997, avidly watching and re-watching the Living with the Lions DVD. (Even today some 16 years on, it is a must-watch for any young rugby player/fan).

The video was a wonderful presentation of what it was all about. The humour of John Bentley. The motivational speaking of Jim Telfer and Sir Ian McGeechan. The raw power of Scot Gibbs and the fact Neil Jenkins vomited before every match! That DVD was the first time touring at this level had  been realistically captured on tape. For the first time people got to see all the characters and the behind-the- scenes stuff which make the Lions so great and just why it is so special and unique. I instantly became addicted to the Lions, remaining a huge fan ever since.

What makes the Lions so special is the tradition. The uniqueness of being able to watch the very best of Britain and Ireland rugby combine to create what, in a relatively short time, becomes such a united and formidable force. It is the ultimate fantasy Rugby game. Who would you pick in your team, if you could pick literally anyone?

The skill and determination of the coaches and senior players, to knit this together so quickly is astounding. It’s clear during the Six Nations there is never much love lost between the international sides involved. Players all have preconceptions about each other. Reputations precede you, which would make bonding in any environment difficult even given a reasonable run-in. However with the Lions there isn’t the luxury of a run-in. From the moment they assemble as a squad, the clock is ticking.

However from what I can see, the magic of the Lions supersedes all prejudices and appears to bring the best out of the players involved. Friendships are forged in the heat of battle that last forever. Real rugby characters come to the fore and are immortalised by tales of do and dare in after-dinner speeches up and down the land. Even the youngest of readers will have heard the   tales of the legendary Willie John McBride.

The other factor is that it resembles the old school tour in the modern era. The combination of midweek games with Test matches at the weekend. The sheer intensity of touring.

Every participant has told me without hesitation, it is one, if not their single best rugby memory and experience.

The last tour to South Africa in particular ranks up there with players, as being some of the best fun and pure rugby experience they have ever had; and they didn’t even win the series!

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