The British and Irish Lions in SA is bigger than a World Cup medal for the Test series winner. SA’s 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit recently told SA Rugby Magazine that the significance of victory against the Lions was because a player only got one chance to beat them in an international career.
“They only come to SA every 12 years. You can play in a World Cup every four years, but there is only one chance to beat the Lions. That is why it is so special,” said Du Toit. “And that is why there is so much pressure on the series.”
SA national director of rugby and 2019 Springbok World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus needs no introduction to the Lions. Erasmus had his playing Test debut against the Lions in 1997 and reveres their history, especially in SA and against the Boks.
“There have been incredible Tests over the past century but there have also been amazing provincial matches and results. If you get to play against the Lions, as a Springbok in a Test series, or as a provincial player, it is a lifetime highlight,” he said.
The South Africans aren’t alone in their awe of a Springbok vs Lions Test series.
Ian McGeechan, before the 2009 Lions tour to SA, told sportswriter Donald McCrae: “I will tell you something that took my breath away. I was with Martin Johnson a couple of weeks ago and he told me that going on tour with the Lions to SA in 1997 was his greatest rugby experience. He said winning that Test series meant more to him than winning the World Cup. That had a profound impact and made me understand again the magnitude of the Lions in SA. Most of the great memories embedded in Lions history seem to come against the Springboks. What makes the Lions special is the way they’re seen in SA eyes. For them, just like us, each match between the Lions and Springboks is like a World Cup final.”
McGeechan, who played for the Lions in SA and coached them in SA, said that to be part of a tour to SA and to experience the traveling Lions “Sea of Red” support was unique.
Former England and Lions No 8 Lawrence Dallaglio declared the 1997 Lions series win in SA as the best moment of his career. Dallaglio, like Johnson, won the World Cup with England in 2003.
Dallaglio, in an interview with RugbyPass, said: “Looking back on your career, people ask what was the best moment. Naturally, people expect you to say the Rugby World Cup, which was amazing, but actually in terms of experience, the best rugby experience of my life bar none was the 1997 Lions in SA. It was an odyssey.
“I was lucky. I didn’t grow up in a traditional rugby setting but I had a lot of friends who told me about the Lions and I’d read up about them because it is important to understand what you’re going into. I read about Carwyn James, Willie John McBride and the tour to SA in 1974, when they never lost a game, so I felt I knew the environment I was coming into but even that couldn’t prepare me for how special it really is.”
Welshman Scott Gibbs, player of the series in 1997, described the tour to SA as the best he had experienced. Gibbs, who played 15 matches and five Tests for the Lions in New Zealand (1993), SA (1997) and Australia (2001) said the tour to SA was a rugby player’s dream.
Gibbs insisted that when it came to Lions tour memories, it was SA first, then the rest. “Obviously, you don’t get a greater test of your rugby ability than touring New Zealand and I will always have fond memories of those nine weeks in 1993 because I made my Lions Test debut against the All Blacks, but what sets SA apart is that the tour experience is just magnificent. The rugby is guaranteed to be tough, but it’s the SA supporters who make it that much more difficult and delightful.
“You know you aren’t lining up against just 15 players when you are in SA. You play an entire country and the atmosphere is always electric,” says Gibbs. “You have to earn the respect of the SA supporter through your performance and when you do, they will laud you as they do their own players. I read a quote where Brian O’Driscoll said the thing about touring SA is that they just get it. I concur, the South Africans absolutely get it in how they respond to having the Lions in their country.
“As a player, it is the one tour you want to experience. The weather generally is a gift, every city has a different feel to it, there is such cultural diversity among the people, and there is such a love for the game. It’s so raw in its energy and so wild. It’s a country that’s got edge.”
Gibbs was sensational in the Lions 2-1 series win in 1997, but he said that to beat the Springboks in their own backyard required a monumental effort from a special group of players and management.
“The Springboks were a brilliant side in 1997, as they were in 2009, and as they will be in 2021. Each time the Lions have visited in the professional era, the Springboks have been the incumbent World Cup champions.
“The Lions in SA in 2021 can’t come quickly enough.
“If you love rugby, you simply have to be in SA in July and August next year. The quality of Springboks and Lions players is such that it could be the rugby series of the century and it could eclipse the quality of what we saw from SA and the Lions in 2009, and the Lions and the All Blacks in 2017 in New Zealand.”
Gibbs was awed by the tempo at which the 2009 series was played, especially the second Test in Pretoria, which he believes has rightly been described as one of the greatest Tests ever played.
“It had everything. Brutal collisions, brilliant tries, constant scoreboard fluctuation and ultimately Morne Steyn’s series-winning 50m penalty with the final kick of the match. Expect more of the same in 2021 because the two squads will be that closely matched in quality.”
SA Rugby, which was recommended to host the 2023 World Cup on the basis of their bid by an independent committee but lost out to France on the general council vote, have a financial lifesaver in the Lions.
There isn’t a bigger tour in the professional game of rugby and never before have two of the highest-profile rugby brands combined to create a tour entity to maximise the value with sponsors, broadcasters and investors.
The Lions in SA commercially will be bigger than the Rugby World Cup 2023 would have been and, the game’s financial wellbeing aside, there will be a massive impact on the economy. More than 13,000 temporary jobs will be created and many of them will translate into permanent employment.
The British and Irish Lions in SA will be an eight-occasion rugby extravaganza in 2021 and one of global sport’s most watched events.
Yet, despite SA Rugby and the Lions commercial collaboration, SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux insisted that didn’t mean SA wasn’t the host nation.
The majority of tickets would be made available to SA residents and tickets were affordable and accessible.
Tickets for the non-Test matches against invitational teams started at R100 and the cheapest ticket for a Test match was R500. Only SA residents qualified for the cheapest tickets.
Roux said it was important to welcome the Lions “Sea of Red” travelling support with “an Army of Green”.
The Lions will play eight matches, with the tour opener against the DHL Stormers at the Cape Town Stadium on July 3 and the final match will be the third and final Test against the Springboks at Emirates Airlines Park on August 7.
Tickets for the midweek match against a SA Invitational team in Port Elizabeth and against SA A at Mbombela Stadium range from R100 to R350 and the Test tickets start at R500, with the premium tickets at R3,000.
SA residents will also benefit because the majority of match-day tickets can only be purchased by SA residents, through the local tour ticketing website, www.lionstour2021.co.za.
Jurie Roux, in detailing the four-tier ticket system, confirmed that entry-level to the Lions vs the DHL Stormers, CellC Sharks, and Vodacom Bulls was R250, which was only applicable to residents of the country.
He said that it was critical for SA residents to note that there was only one route to secure tickets — and that was by entering the ballot on www.lionstour2021.co.za.
The ballot opens at 10.30am on Wednesday, September 2, and Roux emphasized that tickets were not available at match venues, through provincial unions or the usual retail outlets. He cautioned that if anyone answered an online advertisement for Lions tickets, they were in danger of being defrauded, exploited and ticketless.
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