“There are times today when you will have to reach to the depths of your soul.”
Those were the words Willie John McBride, the most legendary lion of them all, said to match day 22 when he presented our Test jerseys to us 12 years ago in South Africa.
I remember it vividly. It was the morning of the first Test, our head coach Ian McGeechan had appointed the team and Willie John – captain of the ‘Invincibles’ tour to South Africa in 1974 – spoke to the selectees in the team room of our hotel in Durban.
Jamie Roberts plays for the Lions against South Africa in the 2009 Test series
He told us how the Lions jersey does something to you that no one else does. You feel that you are growing enormously in it.
He was right. When I wore the Lions Test shirt I felt like I was representing everyone who played number 12 in the UK and Ireland – from club to professional level.
The biggest concern is that you forget to bring the shirt for match day! Upon receipt, it was our responsibility to pack our shirt to go to the ground.
I took mine to my hotel room and had a moment alone with it. I couldn’t stop looking at it.
It’s hard to describe the emotions you feel, it’s a culmination of all the hard work you’ve done, everything your family and friends have been through with you.
Reaching the top is a very rewarding and unique experience.
I messaged my friends and sent pictures of the shirt to the boys.
My shirt for that first Test in 2009 is one of the first things I see now when I walk into my living room in my house. I put two rows of tape on the front so the race crew could write their names neatly, then had it framed.
Dan Biggar is the pinnacle of British and Irish rugby and deserves to play
The one from Loftus Versfeld’s second test is with my parents, in my father’s small office. I went for a drink with him the night before the first Test in 2009, enjoying the moment.
The chosen ones will receive their special Test jerseys on Friday. It’s a very emotional moment in your career. That responsibility is enormous. I loved it, and I’m sure those selected this week will too.
I’ve enjoyed listening to Alun Wyn Jones say earlier this week that everything he’s done for the past four years is aligned with this.
I felt the same. In your professional career, of course, you have club rugby from week to week, international rugby from campaign to campaign, but in the back of your mind you know that if you peak around the Lions year, you have a chance to go on these tours.
After 2009 the tour to Australia in 2013 was probably in the back of my mind every day, rumbling in the back of my mind.
In 2011, we had the heartache with Wales from losing the World Cup semi-final, then we won a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2012 and then the 2013 title, but the Lions drove me too.
I love the stories of people’s paths to the Lions, whether it’s Wyn Jones moving from Llandovery and the Welsh Premiership to the basic here in a few years, Duhan van der Merwe leaving South Africa five years ago and now playing against them, or Stuart Hogg had to go home in 2017 after a bizarre eye socket injury in a collision with Conor Murray to finally become a Test Lion.
When I look at the team, it’s all players who have performed in recent seasons when the stakes were highest.
One person I am personally very happy with is Dan Biggar. In 2013, he was the only one of our starting XV to beat England 30-3 to win the Six Nations and not make the Lions tour selected by Warren Gatland that summer.
Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones was right when he said the last four years have been aligned with this
In 2017 he went to New Zealand but did not win a Test cap as he was behind Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton.
Here he is now, starting number 10 for the Lions, and he absolutely deserves it as the standout number 10 in British and Irish rugby.
A Lions Test week rattles quickly. You brace yourself for what’s to come and before you know it the game is just around the corner.
The night before the race it hardly matters if you don’t sleep, because you know that the adrenaline will take you to another level.
I was taking a walk along the beach on the morning of the 2009 Durban race with some guys, had a cup of coffee and then suddenly you’re having lunch and it’s time to go.
My flick-the-switch moment was a shower, half an hour before the last team meeting. That’s where my mentality would change. Then it was ready, to the meeting, earphones in for the bus trip.
I’ve always listened to the same playlist before a match; a random mix of house, rap and Bruce Springsteen.
It ends with two songs: Lucky Man by The Verve and then This is The One by The Stone Roses, which Manchester United rush to at Old Trafford.
Those were supposed to take me to the Westgate Street home games in Cardiff for Wales, but when I entered King’s Park in Durban in 2009, I took my earphones out so I could absorb the sounds, sights and smells.
You realize you might never do this again, so you want to take it all in. It was just immense.
One of the most amazing sights of my life was to get out of the tunnel before a match and see this wall of red shirts across the street in the ‘Shark Tank’. Absolutely crazy.
It’s such a shame we won’t have that this time around, but I’m extremely excited for all those selected – what an opportunity.
There are only three 80-minute sets every four years to leave a lasting legacy and become a team that will be remembered by history. Hopefully we’ll see three games for the ages.
As Jim Telfer said in his famous 1997 speech, “Getting selected is the easy part. Winning in a Lions Test match is the ultimate.’
Good luck guys.
STARS ON THE SIDELINE CAN’T SUCK
I feel for people like Josh Adams, Taulupe Faletau, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola who are not in the roster.
If you’re not disappointed, you’re not human – but they need to find a way to channel that and support the testing team. It is very likely that they will be involved as this test series will be brutal.
In 2013, I was in the Finn Russell position, injured for the first two and afraid I would be sent home, but Warren trusted the medics and I came back in the third test we won in Sydney.
The players left out will be disappointed, but they have to find a way to still support the team
I will never forget when I was selected for Brian O’Driscoll to play with Jonathan Davies in that final test in Australia.
He came by bus, shook my hand, congratulated us, asked if we needed any tips or help after training – but I could see how upset he was.
The sheer disappointment was in his face and body language, but he did the right thing. I felt I should do him justice in the Test.
The Lions gives you those kinds of lessons, not just to be an athlete, but also to be a decent human being.
PLAY THEIR BEST AND THE LIONS WIN
Warren Gatland has a brilliant way of simplifying the complex. The Welsh coaching group where I played with him and Shaun Edwards was all about clarity.
Gats would pull a messy piece of paper from his pocket, read to the team, and then Shaun would often have three or four trigger words for us to focus on, concentrating on the week’s messages.
Warren would never coach too much in a big week, all very short and sharp, trying not to add to the soup of information the players have.
Lions coach Warren Gatland likes to keep it simple and let the players flourish
Alun Wyn Jones finds great strength in keeping it basic as well, allowing players to thrive in the system. He is an emotional, but smart guy, who speaks from the heart before a match.
The structure of the game will be simple but will allow players like Anthony Watson, Duhan van der Merwe and Elliot Daly to flourish and show their superpowers.
If the Lions try their best, they will win. They are going to start the game to play with pace and power and will want to score. Then, when they have a head start after an hour, there are no better tacticians to use than Conor Murray and Owen Farrell to control the final third.