British & Irish Lions
2013 crop get their chance to create history
Tom Hamilton at the Lions squad announcement
April 30, 2013
The British & Irish Lions squad is announced © Getty Images
It was a day that felt like Christmas. But there was no tree, no turkey or snowmen; instead there was the sizeable present on offer of a place on the British & Irish Lions tour. On Tuesday, the great and the good of the rugby world gathered in Syon Park to hear the 37 names picked by Warren Gatland to represent four nations in Hong Kong and Australia.
There were some who were all but guaranteed spaces on the tour. But there was also that wonderful uncertainty which comes with such an announcement. There were no correct squads printed in the media in the run-up to the big day - Gatland delighted in making this point before his eagerly anticipated reveal. Immediately this sparked rumour; would Ian Madigan or Billy Twelvetrees get the nod? In the end neither did, nor others who before the Six Nations seemed certain to tour. Rory Best and Chris Robshaw were the two standout omissions - alongside that man Jonny Wilkinson.
As we trooped into the hall where the names of those selected would be read out, we were greeted by a room emblazoned in sponsors - they are the necessary evil of the modern game. Andy Farrell at one point described the Lions as a "brand", but whether the team are looked upon as a commodity, a business or 15 men representing four nations, is purely subjective.
Central to the announcement was tour manager Andy Irvine, who toured in 1974, 1977 and 1980, and he was quick to highlight the Lions' longevity and resilience. "There were many who thought that the outlet of professionalism and congested playing calendars would spell the end of the Lions," he noted. "However, as we know, Lions tours have continued in the professional era and represent the last true institution of rugby touring and all its fine traditions."
And then the focus shifted to the now. It is testament to the ever-increasing interest in the Lions that the room was packed and we were all asked to turn off our mobiles, as the announcement was being broadcast worldwide. It felt like the announcement of a new American president.
But instead of Barack Obama strolling down the central line of the hall, between journalists and former Lions - Will Greenwood, Stuart Barnes, Gerald Davies and Shane Williams were just a few of those in attendance - a 24-year old man found himself at the centre of the rugby world. Sam Warburton has taken up more column inches than most of his Welsh team-mates but he is still targeting at least eight more years in the game and Gatland was quick to highlight that the openside is ever-improving, still far from the finished article.
He will now be the face of the Lions come the summer, but he will be playing alongside 36 others. Wilkinson's exclusion was to be expected, despite his Man-of-the-Match performance against Saracens on Sunday. But it was the name of a member of that English side being read out that caused the largest murmur from the watching press and sponsors - Matt Stevens.
Stevens called time on his England career in August but after touring with the Lions in 2005, the forward, who missed 2009 due to being suspended for drug use, will now look to write another chapter in his varied career. Lions coach Graham Rowntree highlighted Stevens' ability to play in the loose and his mobility as a huge advantage, something Mike Ross perhaps lacked, while Gatland echoed his lieutenant to the press later on.
Stevens' inclusion, alongside Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg, Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola were the most surprising from Tuesday's announcement. For Hogg and Vunipola, who only made their Test debuts this season, they will find themselves under the media glare like never before.
© Getty Images
And so will those who missed out on that golden ticket - not everyone can be the lucky recipient of that Lions jersey. They will probably get the chance to travel with their respective nation come the summer, but today the attention was on those who will represent the Lions.
Irvine and Warburton were perhaps the most engaging with the press afterwards. Warburton spoke with a quiet authority and assuredness that has clearly impressed those in the past who have picked him as a captain - the parallels with Martin Johnson were immediately clear.
Irvine will hope to be as anonymous as possible come the summer but that did not stop him succinctly summing up exactly what the announcement stood for and the characteristics the 37 men possess: "You have to have a good set of tourists, you need a set of guys and I feel we have that. But we need to win this series."
The coaches have picked their chosen few, now the hard work starts. Before the announcement we saw the montage of past Lions tours and their memorable moments. It was an occasion rooted in history - but now it is up to the 2013 crop to create their own chapter.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.