Come back on Tuesday for the centres, on Wednesday for the half-backs, on Thursday for the back row and on Friday for the front five. Disagree with Mick’s selections? Leave a comment to let us know who you would have picked and why.
The Greatest Lions: back three and head coach
15 – JPR Williams
(Wales, eight Lions caps, 1971 and 1974)
The sideburns alone could strike the fear of God into you, great bushy adornments that came to symbolise a rare physical specimen, full of natural vim and ferocity. Williams became more familiarly known by his initials, JPR, when another John Williams, a wing, appeared on the Wales scene.
JPR is best remembered for his fierce presence at the rear, a last line of resistance that was so rarely breached in a one-on-one situation as Jean-Francois Gourdon discovered in 1976. The France wing was on the point of touching down for the try that would have sealed a Grand Slam only to end up in the front row of the stands courtesy of Williams’ shoulder. Yet Williams was also a fine attacking player, a trend-setter in the wake of a relaxation of the laws in the late sixties that restricted direct kicking into touch, as fearless in his forays upfield as he was when scrambling in defence.
JPR was an ever-present across those two Lions-defining tours to New Zealand in ’71 and South Africa three years later, helping to clinch the series against the All Blacks with an improbable 45 metre drop goal in the fourth test in Auckland.
Williams was an exceptionally talented all-rounder, a winner of Junior Wimbledon as well as one who had a long career in medicine. JPR played 11 times against England and never lost. Who else to challenge him for the no.15 Lions shirt? A couple of stand-out Scots in Andy Irvine and Gavin Hastings while the unique talents of Jason Robinson have obvious match-winner’s merit. But JPR sees off all-comers, for his pluck, spark and skill.
14 – Gerald Davies
(Wales, five Lions caps, 1968 and 1971)
Even in his mid-seventies were you to meet him in the street you would not bet against Gerald Davies sending you the wrong way as he sidestepped you in the tightest of spaces. There has never been a more elegant wing three-quarter, with his shirt collar high and body balanced, poised and potent in equal measure, ever alert, ever willing. His sidestep was a thing of beauty, a study in geometry as much as it was in poetics, precisely choreographed, the lean, the feint, the deception, the speed, the flair, the imagination, all executed to devilish effect.
Originally a centre until switched to the wing by Clive Rowlands on the Wales tour to Australia and New Zealand, Davies brought with him an awareness of possibility that is the hallmark of all great players, the courage not to play to rote but to see opportunity where others only see danger. Given the calibre of player inside him during those glory years for Welsh rugby, Davies did not have much need to go looking for work elsewhere on the field but such was the sharpness of his antennae that he would pop up anywhere along the back line, creating havoc and making sure that his switchback running maximised chances for those around him.
Davies scored as well as created as his tally of 20 tries in 46 appearances indicates, famously touching down against Scotland in the last minute at Murrayfield enabling flanker John Taylor to seal the win with a famous touchline conversion. There was no doubting his potency on the Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971, a bewitching presence in a back line that transfixed the likes of TV spectators such as future Lions coaches, Kiwis Graham Henry and Warren Gatland, neither of whom had ever seen rugby played in such a scintillating, clinical fashion.
Gerald Davies in action during the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
11 – Tony O’Reilly
(Ireland, 10 Lions caps 1955, 1959)
Tony O’Reilly had it all: the class, the skill, the looks, the charm, the sense of fun and mischief, the commercial acumen, the high-roller lifestyle, the global entrepreneur, the media mogul – as Mrs Merton might say, tell me what first attracted you to the multi-millionaire Tony O’Reilly. Given his success in later life, it is easy to overlook just what a fine player O’Reilly was, tricky, clever and dead-eyed when the try-line came in sight as his ledger of account shows: 38 tries in all games on those two tours, six in ten tests, a strike rate that stands the test of time.
O’Reilly was a precocious talent, only 18 when selected for the Lions tour of South Africa in 1955. He turned the youthful promise that had been seen for Ireland, the strong vigorous running, and translated it into stirring deeds in the red of the British and Irish Lions. Even the locals warmed to him, for the directness of his play as well as the relish with which he threw himself into every situation, on and off the field. His try-scoring records for the Lions were acclaimed round the rugby world, prodigious feats, never mind achieved by one so young. O’Reilly scored one and made another for back-row colleague, Jim Greenwood, in the knife-edge first test in Johannesburg that was won by the Lions, 23-22. For some strange reason known only to the selectors, O’Reilly, was chosen out of position at centre for the fourth and final test yet still managed to score what turned out to be the final try of the trip in a 22-8 loss for the Lions as the Springboks saved face to square the series. There were six tests on the combined tour to Australia and New Zealand four years later and O’Reilly played true to reputation in scoring in four of them. There are other candidates for this left slot, JJ Williams, Rory Underwood, Ieuan Evans but O’Reilly trumps them all.
Head coach: Sir Ian McGeechan
(1989, 1993, 1997, 2009, assistant 2005)
The keyboard finger did hover for a long time over the name of Carwyn James, the philosopher-poet whose spirit and insights did so much to inspire the 1971 Lions to such great heights in New Zealand, a landmark tour in that it was their first series victory, lending the cause viability. That tour has been a reference point ever since, a template for how skill and esprit de corps can achieve so much if given licence to play. Three years later the tourists accomplished even more in sweeping all before them, winning 21 consecutive games on tour and only being denied a Slam in the test series by a contentious decision in the final match. Ian McGeechan experienced that at close quarters, an ever-present in the centre and again in New Zealand three years afterwards. More than any other man, McGeechan knows what makes a Lions party tick, knows how to get the best from a diverse group, how to turn rivals into allies, how not to overload with detail but how to create just the right tactical framework and how to push all the right emotional buttons.
Even now, all these years later, the hairs on the back of the neck still stand up when hearing Geech just speak about the Lions. If that is true for a mere observer, imagine what it felt like for players, ‘the test match animals,’ as McGeechan would refer to them all. The Scot had terrific success in his first three tours, coming back from an opening test loss in Australia in ’89 to win the series, taking the All Blacks all the way in 1993 before putting one over on the world champion Springboks.
The Lions lost their way thereafter, first under Graham Henry and then Clive Woodward. McGeechan, with manager and decorated Lions wing, Gerald Davies, restored the ethos as well as credibility of the Lions in that nerve-shredding, rib-crunching series in South Africa in 2009. Warren Gatland was on that tour as forwards coach, absorbing so much from his mentor. Gatland is the modern-day McGeechan as he approaches his third tour in charge. McGeechan has paved the way for the enduring appeal of the Lions.