Whatever the southern hemisphere shortcomings, though, the Lions can always be relied upon to produce just enough stirring series wins to maintain the tourists’ mystique.
Here, we selects three classic tours to live long in Lions memory, three tours to forget, and we look back on five classic matches.
Three tours to treasure
1971 (New Zealand): Still the only Lions to win a Test series in New Zealand, coach Carwyn James forged arguably the tourists’ greatest-ever outfit. Welshman James had never coached his national side, but his innovation proved the backbone of a dogged 2-1 Test series victory.
John Dawes became the gritty captain to spearhead the Test assault, surrounded on all sides by a host of Welsh wizards. Barry John posted a record 188 points in a single tour, while Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams and more combined in devastating fashion to stun the favourites and hosts.
1974 (South Africa): The Invincibles won 21 of 22 matches, only drawing the fourth Test with the series already in the bag. The ‘99’ call will forever remain bludgeoned into rugby folklore as the Lions’ collective response to rough housing home tactics. Refusing to be intimidated, captain Willie John McBride devised the call of ‘99’, upon which all Lions players would flood into retaliation en masse. The ruse worked, with the Lions progressing to win every provincial clash while taking the Test series 3-0.
1997 (South Africa): The fly-on-the-wall ‘Living with the Lions’ documentary has imprinted the 1997 tour into a generation of rugby fans’ subconscious. Not only did the Lions win a brutal Test series 2-1, with Jerry Guscott’s drop-goal sealing the pivotal 18-15 victory in the second encounter, but the tourists’ video diaries lifted the lid on a glorious last hurrah for and long goodbye to rugby union’s amateur era. Taskmaster coach Jim Telfer’s ‘Everest’ speech has been riffed too many times to avoid hackneyed status now – but hear the original, and wait for the goosebumps to rise. The blueprint – attainable or otherwise - for modern-era Lions success.
Three tours to forget
2005 (New Zealand): England’s World Cup-winning supremo Sir Clive Woodward was given the task of leading the Lions to New Zealand – traditionally their toughest destination – but it proved a miserable mission. Not only did the Lions lose all three Tests against a Dan Carter-inspired All Blacks – the aggregate score was 107-40 – but captain Brian O’Driscoll suffered a tour-ending shoulder injury after being spear-tackled during the opening minutes of the first Test in Christchurch. Woodward’s Lions were also beaten by the New Zealand Maori, and there was precious little to enthuse about off the field either as a dark cloud of under-achievement rarely lifted.
1966 (Australia and New Zealand): Captained by Scotland forward Mike Campbell-Lamerton, the Lions started a marathon 35-game trip by winning both Test matches against Australia. But the substantial New Zealand leg proved an altogether tougher proposition, with only a 60 per cent success rate from 25 matches, including defeats in all four Tests in Dunedin, Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. There were also provincial losses to Southland, Otago, Wellington and Wanganui-King Country, and when they stopped off on the way home for two games in Canada the Lions came unstuck against British Colombia.
1924 (South Africa): Captained by Englishman Ronald Cove-Smith and under the management of former Wales international Harry Packer, the Lions lost three Tests and drew the other one. They also suffered six defeats away from the Test arena, prompting considerable questioning afterwards about selection and why players who might have made an impact were not chosen. Injuries, though, also proved a major factor as South Africa’s bone-dry pitches claimed a number of casualties and led to players having to cover gaps by featuring in unfamiliar positions.
Five of the best matches
South Africa 22 Lions 23 (first Test, Johannesburg, August 6, 1955): Considered by many to be the greatest match involving the Lions, launching a Test series against the Springboks that is also regarded as among the most entertaining. The match saw nine tries with the lead changing hands four times. The Lions played virtually the entire second half with 14 men, while South Africa missed a conversion with the last kick of the game that would have won them the match.
New Zealand 3 Lions 13 (third Test, Wellington, July 31, 1971): The third Test completed the Lions’ only series victory against the All Blacks. The tourists scored all their points in the first quarter before closing out the Test, which was played in blustery conditions, in ruthless fashion. Welsh greats Gerald Davies and Barry John scored tries as the Lions established an unassailable 2-1 lead in the series.
South Africa 9, Lions 28 (second Test, Pretoria, June 22, 1974): A golden era for the Lions continued when Willie John McBride’s tourists thrashed the Springboks 3-0 in the series, with the second Test proving the highlight. South Africa were outscored 5-0 on the try count and were taken apart in a manner rarely seen. Wales wing JJ Williams scored five tries, while half-backs Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett were in inspired form.
South Africa 15, Lions 18 (second Test, Durban, June 28 1997): Expectations were minimal when the 1997 Lions, led by Martin Johnson, arrived in South Africa for a series no-one believed they could win. A 25-16 victory in the first Test defied all expectations, but better was to come a week later when the Lions’ heroic defence kept the dominant Springboks in check. Neil Jenkins kicked all five of his penalties but the winning points were delivered by Jeremy Guscott’s famous drop-goal.
South Africa 28, Lions 25 (second Test, Pretoria, June 27, 2009): The Lions’ only defeat on this list and a result that condemned them to a series loss, but there have been few more brutal Test matches packed full of controversy and courage. Two minutes into injury time Morne Steyn kicked a long-range penalty to win the game, but what preceded that was a game of rare intensity with the Lions leading until the 76th minute. Injuries to Adam Jones and Brian O’Driscoll shifted the balance towards South Africa.