Four nations, one rugby team. One goal — to win a Test series against the mighty All Blacks of New Zealand.
The 2017 British and Irish Lions tour is approaching, one of the most anticipated events in world rugby.
It happens every four years, and the privileged players to be selected for this summer’s party were announced Wednesday April 19.
Find out all you need to know about the legendary Lions.
What are the British and Irish Lions?
The Lions is a composite squad formed every four years from the cream of players from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
They rotate tours around the southern hemisphere’s big three rugby union nations — Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The Lions concept grew out of combined British and Irish touring rugby sides from 1888.
For hordes of traveling fans dressed in the team’s replica red shirts, a Lions tour is a huge multinational jamboree.
Where are the Lions going in 2017?
New Zealand, land of the Long White Cloud. Land of the All Blacks.
The famous Kiwi side is the no.1 ranked team in the world and in 2015 became the first team to win back-to-back World Cups.
What soccer is to Brazil, rugby is to New Zealand.
Given the Lions is a scratch side coming together every four years, victory is hard to come by.
In 11 Lions tours to New Zealand stretching back to 1904 (the first six tours were to both New Zealand and Australia), the visitors have triumphed once, a 2-1 victory in 1971.
On their last visit in 2005 the Lions suffered a 3-0 “blackwash.”
In all there have been 38 Tests between New Zealand and the Lions, with the Kiwis winning 29.
Four years ago in Australia, the Lions won the three-Test series 2-1, the first victory since 1997.
This time there will be seven warm-up games against provincial opposition and three Tests against the All Blacks, between June 3 and July 9.
See below for full fixture list.
A squad of 41 players has been chosen to represent the 2017 Lions, captained by Wales’ Sam Warburton, who led the victorious tour to Australia in 2013.
Head coach Warren Gatland — the New Zealander is the Wales coach on a sabbatical for his second stint with the Lions — has chosen 16 Englishmen, 12 from Wales, 11 from Ireland and two from Scotland.
Among the big names to miss out are England’s victorious Six Nations captain Dylan Hartley, with his national understudy Jamie George selected instead.
Warburton becomes only the second man to captain back-to-back Lions tours, after England’s Martin Johnson in 1997 and 2001.
The Welshman said he was in a supermarket car park while his wife was buying bread and milk last Thursday when Gatland called to offer him the role.
The balance of the squad, in terms of how many players to take in each position, and how to balance accusations of national bias, are among the main challenges of the coaching team.
“It was probably the hardest we have had [to pick],” Gatland told a news conference Wednesday.
“We think it is the strongest squad. We are really excited with the talent and quality of the team we are taking to New Zealand.”
In 2005, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward was in charge and picked 20 Englishmen in an initial 44-man squad.
Gatland’s smaller initial squad for Australia in 2013 featured nine Englishmen, 15 Welshman, 10 from Ireland and three from Scotland.
Being selected for a Lions tour is one of the highest honors in the game. The ultimate is making the Test team.
“Well as far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest honor a British or Irish rugby player can get,” former Scotland captain Gavin Hastings told CNN.
Hastings, widely considered one of Scotland’s best ever players, was part of two Lions tours: one victorious, one a narrow defeat.
“They were great experiences and you can look back at them with a lot of positive memories and for me that’s what it’s all about.
“I think it’s a recognition that you are one of the best players amongst your peers and the four home countries.
“You’ve got an ability and an opportunity to go down with the Lions and play one of the very best sides in the Southern hemisphere and try and win a test series. The challenge is massive.”
England’s 2003 World Cup-winning captain Johnson echoes Hastings’ comments, describing the Lions tour as a “mystical” event.
“It’s a very special thing — it doesn’t exist in most sports to have an amalgamated team of Great Britain and the whole of Ireland to go on a tour,” he told CNN.
“It’s very special, having the best of the best in any given period. Some guys make their name and they’re more famous as Lions than anything else so it is a great thing to do.
“They are part of the history of the game — real part of the history of the game, so it is very special.”
Full 2017 British & Irish Lions squad:
Rory Best (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Kyle Sinckler (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Billy Vunipola (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales)
Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), George North (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Jared Payne (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Ben Te’o (England), Anthony Watson (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)
How to turn four nations into one and forge a spirit of unity in a week before setting off on tour is the crux of the Lions. In the old days, a good old-fashioned knees-up did the job.
Before the successful 1997 tour to South Africa, which the Lions won 2-1, the squad frequented a local pub near their training base in Hampshire, England.
“That is what won us the series, that week before we got on the plane,” ex-England scrum-half and three-time Lion Matt Dawson told BBC Sport.
“It involved a couple of nights of just sitting in a room with a keg of beer, telling stories, and just getting to know players. That relationship just blossomed as the tour went on.”
Four years later, a more corporate approach to team building was in vogue. After a fitness boot camp, the Lions took part in dragon boat racing, high-wire assault courses, trust-building problem-solving exercises, and playing a variety of musical instruments in a pop-up band.
There were even deep discussion sessions where players were asked to bare their soul. Martyn Williams told of the death of his brother. Dawson discussed a recent relationship break-up.
In 2005, Woodward had his players paint pictures for a giant collage, and perform sketch shows in front of teammates.
Sharing rooms with players from other nations, players’ committees, drawing up codes of conduct known as “Lions laws,” and secondary roles such as entertainments officers also help break the ice.
Motivational speeches before big games and inspirational oratories from coaches help instill Lions lore.
Forwards coach Jim Telfer made a stirring speech in 1997 that is still remembered with reverence.
Among his gems were:
“Many are considered, few are chosen.”
“This is your Everest, boys.”
Head coach Ian McGeechan delivered an equally moving message before the second Test in Durban in 1997.
“You will meet each other in the street in 30 years’ time and there will just be a look and you’ll know just how special some days in your life are.”
All part of the fun of a Lions tour is the tittle-tattle that accompanies the circus. It starts with the composition of the squad and is always bubbling in the background.
In theory, the Test team is selected based on form in the warm-up games, but look out for murmurs of discontent from some of the “dirttrackers,” the name given to the players destined only to feature against provincial opposition.
Being a “good tourist” is one of the character traits looked for when initial selection is on a knife-edge. Midweek captain Donal Lenihan’s “Doughnuts” in 1989 were an example of a midweek side who knuckled down, won their matches and admirably supported the Test team.
The 1993 dirt-trackers were reportedly less disciplined and “went off tour,” arguably to the detriment of the Test squad.
Modern attrition rates, however, mean injuries are more prevalent. Often the eventual Test team bears little resemblance to most people’ s picks before the tour.
In 2001, Dawson got into trouble for a newspaper column he wrote criticizing the regime which was published in the Daily Telegraph on the morning of the first Test. He was nearly sent home, although captain Martin Johnson said if Dawson went, he would go too.
Later in the tour, Austin Healey found himself in hot water with a ghost-written column laying into Australia and lock Justin Harrison, calling him a “plod” and a “plank.”
On the ill-fated New Zealand tour in 2005, one of the charges against Woodward was the decision to appoint former Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell as communications manager.
Then there is the on-field controversy. Over the years there have been many incidents of home sides attempting to take out key Lions.
Notable examples include Australian Duncan McRae pummeling Ronan O’Gara, who needed 11 stitches in his face, in 2001 and the double spear tackle on Brian O’Driscoll by All Blacks Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu in 2005.
The most notorious tales come from the 1974 tour to South Africa and the infamous “99” call, devised by Lions captain Willie John McBride.
The idea was that if one Lions player was on the receiving end of illegal brutality, the shout would be a signal for everyone else to join the fray.
According to McBride, it was only used once, in a bad-tempered midweek game against Eastern Province. The mayhem lasted seconds, but the Lions had made their point.
When word got out the myth grew. The message was that these guys were not to be messed with.
Even so, the third Test in Port Elizabeth was dubbed the “Battle of Boet Erasmus Stadium” after a series of all-in brawls.
Lions in numbers
£70,000 ($88,000) — The reported wage for playing on the 2017 Lions tour. Win bonuses for Test matches could take a player’s earnings for the six-week tour to close to £100,000 ($125,000).
17 — Most caps won by a British and Irish Lion, held by Ireland’s Willie John McBride on five tours between 1962-1974.
10 — Number of matches on the 2017 tour, including three Tests.
7 — The Lions will play in seven different cities against eight different opponents.
50,000 — Capacity of Auckland’s Eden Park, the host stadium for the first and third Tests and the midweek game against Auckland Blues.
37 — The All Blacks are on an unbeaten streak of 37 matches against any opposition at Eden Park stretching back to 1994.
4,600,000 — The population of New Zealand.
103,500 — the area, in square miles, of New Zealand spread across the north and south islands.
Fixtures in full
June 3 — Provincial Union XV v Lions — Toll Stadium, Whangarei
June 7 — Blues v Lions — Eden Park, Auckland
June 10 — Crusaders v Lions — AMI Stadium, Christchurch
June 13 — Highlanders v Lions — Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
June 17 — New Zealand Maori v Lions — International Stadium, Rotorua
June 20 — Chiefs v Lions — Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
June 24 — New Zealand v Lions — First Test, Eden Park, Auckland
June 27 — Hurricanes v Lions — Westpac Stadium, Wellington
July 1 — New Zealand v Lions — Second Test, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
July 8 — New Zealand v Lions — Third Test, Eden Park, Auckland