Having once co-authored a book about the British and Irish Lions with my old pal the sportswriter Jeff Connor, I can honestly confirm that the Lions are a special breed of men, and the saying that ‘once a Lion always a Lion’ is absolutely true.
Indeed Jeff and I called the book Once Were Lions and though it’s out of print, I still think it added something to the literature about the Lions, namely the voices of former Lions themselves.
A few of those we spoke to have gone now, including Bleddyn Williams, the Prince of Centres, who we interviewed some years before his death in 2009. What a remarkable human being, so modest about his captaincy of Wales – he had 100% success in those five matches – and the Lions and his long career as a rugby correspondent.
I thought of Williams at the weekend when I bumped into the Lions Trek for Doddie which went from the Weir family farm near Melrose to Murrayfield to raise money for the Doddie Weir Foundation. The Prince of Centres died at the age of 86, and would have been 98 this year, but I bet that if he could have made it, Williams would have supported the Trek, because it exemplified the spirit of being a Lion as well as displaying the best of rugby’s soul – and the Glorious Game really does have a heart and soul.
It was genuinely uplifting to see Kenny Logan leading a troop of Lions and other volunteers on the Trek which has raised in excess of £160,000 for the Foundation. Andy Nicol, Jason White, Alan Tait, Rob Wainwright, Stuart Grimes, John Barclay and Simon Shaw were the internationalists who gave up their time and probably a lot of skin off their feet to complete the Trek. Jason Fox, the former SAS man who presents Who Dares Wins on television was also there, and Kenny told me why they were doing it in just a few words – “we’re doing it for Doddie.”
For me that’s what the rugby family means. When one of our number is in trouble we must all rally round, and in Doddie Weir we have an inspirational figure who has put his health troubles to one side to concentrate on raising funds for research into Motor Neurone Disease. Though it mostly affects people in their 60s and 70s, this horrific disease can strike anyone at any age, and its most terrible effect is that it withers the body while the brain remains alert for a long time.
Doddie’s courage in going public about his MND is typical of a man with the heart of a Lion. That fellow Lions and the rugby community, as well as many members of the public, have rallied round to support his fundraising shows that MND is now, more then ever, something of which people have become aware – and that’s a lot down to Doddie.
When Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric had to retire injured during the match against Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday, I’m pretty sure both knew immediately that their injuries were probably going to rule them out of the tour to South Africa, and so it has proved. Their colleagues in this year’s pack of Lions were genuinely upset by the new that Jones in particular had been ruled out with a dislocated shoulder. He had already proven to be a talismanic figure and a leader of men, and he will be a great miss on the tour. Tipuric, too, will be a huge presence now missing, and indeed I think their absence might just tip the balance in favour of the Springboks in the Test series.
What I do know is that the British and Irish Lions will now rally themselves and step up to face the new challenges facing them. They have great players with experience of overcoming adversity and I expect the men who are leaders themselves to take the responsibility that has been thrust upon them by accident.
The touring squad is never about one or two individuals, but about the way the Lions gel and work together for each other. It is utterly unusual in any sport to expect a group of disparate people to come together and create a team spirit in just a few days, especially when they have been battering hell out of each other in the Six Nations just a few months beforehand. But that is the beauty of the British and Irish Lions – a touring squad can indeed be melded together in a short time and play rugby of the highest quality.
Regular readers know I am not happy that the Tour is going ahead in the midst of the pandemic, and I repeat my fear that one or two positive tests might wreck the whole thing, but the Lions are ready to go and they will play with the great spirit of all the Lions before them, including Doddie Weir.
Go thee, Lions, and do it for Doddie.