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Opinion | Why a British and Irish Lions tour means as much to the Southern Hemisphere

The British and Irish Lions are an iconic symbol of rugby greatness across England, Ireland, Scot...

The British and Irish Lions are an iconic symbol of rugby greatness across England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but it is not just the home nations that have a special attachment to the historic touring side.

Every four years, the best players from those four nations travel to the southern hemisphere to partake in a tour that, arguably, means more to the hosts than the tourists, as each host only ever gets that privilege once every 12 years.

Every Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish player grows up dreaming of playing in the red of the Lions, and with a tour every four years, the potential to play for the Lions comes along almost as often as playing in a World Cup, although the honour of a Lions cap is much more difficult to come by than a World Cup place in the national side.

But, for South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, who have been the destinations for the majority of the tours, the honour of playing against the Lions comes but once in a career, and maybe never.

The 12-year cycle of the Lions tour from a southern hemisphere point of view means that some of the best players in the history of their countries, players that have won World Cups, may have never lined up against the Lions.

For those that do get the opportunity, even for those lining out for their club or franchise, the opportunity to prove yourself agains the best that the northern hemisphere has to offer is one of the biggest moments in their sporting career.

Ugo Monye Lions

Lions charity add to the occasion

It is not just the special occasion of lining up agains the Lions on the pitch that make the tour so special for the host nations, in particular South Africans.

South African grassroots rugby has historically been under-resourced and under-supported, with the poorest townships and villages struggling for support, equipment and training.

From as far back as the 1997 tour, the Lions have held rugby clinics in the poorer communities around South Africa, donating equipment such as balls and bags, and giving the youth some much-needed coaching too.

This year's tour will obviously not be able to include these trips into Soweto, Khayelitsha, and other townships, but that does not mean that the charitable nature of the tour will be left out of this year's tour.

It was announced earlier this year that Laureus Sport for Good and the Lions have partnered to further the charitable goals of the Lions, SA Rugby and Laureus, primarily working on fundraising this year, while also continuing the work that Laureus have been doing since its inception by former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Lions South Africa Soweto

The spectacle is akin to hosting a World Cup

Lions players of the years have waxed lyrical throughout the history of the tour of the unique aspect of going on tour to a hostile environment for not only a test series, but a series of tour matches as well.

This is a group of players, not linked by a common nationality, but rather a common cause, which is to attempt to prove the dominance of northern hemisphere rugby over the south.

While the history books record that the Lions seldom win the test series, the tour matches tend to go wildly in the favour of the tourists.

What this creates is the illusion of an invading force; a red tied that lay waist to the best of the best that have not been included in the hosts' test team.

Couple that with the usual swathe of Lions supporters that travel with the team, the idea that the host country needs to bind together to repel the invasion from the north is deeply embedded into every Lions tour.

Although South Africa have won three World Cups, one of which was arguably one of the most important events in the country's history according to some, a special, match winning moment like Morne Steyn's last minute penalty to win the series in '09 is always in the top five moments of every South African fan's most iconic Springbok memories.

One just has to ask Brian O'Driscoll to see what that victory meant for South Africans, and the loss meant for his own side, and the physicality of that tour simply goes as testament to the passion and commitment involved in a Lions tour.

Again, this year's tour is not going to be the same as previous years; no fans in the stands, no hostile welcome to the stadiums or airports, and no real local interaction, but that does not mean that every single South African will not be glued to their TVs from the start to the finish of this series.

If nothing else, it will be a welcome distraction from the prevailing circumstances, and a welcome return to top-class international rugby after being crowned world champions in 2019.

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Alan Quinlan Brian O'Driscoll British And Irish Lions Keith Wood Lions New Zealand Niamh Briggs Off The Ball Otb South Africa