Part one of the series started with the back three and the head coach before the centres and the half-backs were selected. Now it is the back row’s turn. Come back 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.
6 – Richard Hill
(England, 5 Lions caps, 1997, 2001, 2005)
Richard Hill epitomises the key virtue of any Lions squad – that of selflessness. Unless every single player buries his ego before the plane has taken off from Heathrow, then the tour is doomed. Hill is a team man first and foremost, so often cited by his peers as a player’s player: faithful, reliable, consistent and, just in case these qualities appear too dry and mundane, hard-core and relentless also. It may well be that Bath’s Jon Hall got my vote in an all-round England XV but Hill, of course, would have been just as worthy a selection.
In the colours of the Lions all his assets came to the fore, initially on the tour to South Africa in 1997 when he was part of a physical back-row alongside Lawrence Dallaglio and Tim Rodber. Hill, of course, was an openside flanker by inclination but often traded places so as accommodate Neil Back, who took his place in the dead-rubber third test in Johannesburg after the series had been clinched at King’s Park in Durban. Sam Warburton had claim on the no.6 shirt in this dream-team selection so as to allow contenders such as Tony Neary, Peter Winterbottom and Fergus Slattery scope on the openside. Warburton was a fine Lion himself as befits a two-time captain, successful in Australia and drawing a series in New Zealand. But we are spoiled for riches at flanker. What about Roger Uttley, a rugged-faced Colossus on the 1974 tour to South Africa or Mike Teague who almost single-handedly wrenched the 1989 series in Australia back the way of the Lions? But Hill trumps them all, steadfast against the ‘Boks in 1997 and hugely influential four years later in Australia when the Lions look set for a clean sweep against the Wallabies until the very moment in the second test in Melbourne when Hill was clattered high and dangerously by centre, Nathan Grey, and the momentum swung as the Saracens flanker was taken groggily from the field. Hill gave of his all for the Lions.
Nathan Grey tackles Richard Hill during the second Test against Australia in 2001
7 – Fergus Slattery
(Ireland, 4 Lions caps, 1974)
Fergus Slattery was a bold, vivid player, indefatigable in attack, resolute in defence, fit and furious in all that he did, firstly on the tour to New Zealand in 1971 when he would have won his first Lions cap only to fall ill on the morning of the third test in Wellington and John Taylor recover his place in the starting line-up. The Welshman, a fine player in his own right, principled, too, in refusing to tour apartheid South Africa in 1974, made the most of his reprieve in playing a blinder and getting the nod ahead of Slattery for the last test.
Slattery was in his element in South Africa, hard in the tackle as anyone playing against the Springboks has to be and relentless, as well as speedy, in his pursuit of the ball. Slattery was to end his career as the world’s most capped flanker with a total of 65 international appearances, a weighty tour of duty from the Blackrock College player. He might even have gone down as the man who clinched a Grand Slam clean sweep for the Lions after he seemingly touched down in the closing moments of the fourth test in Johannesburg only for the referee to have ruled that the Irishman had not grounded the ball properly, a decision that was baffling to all non-South African observers watching. The fact that the referee, Max Baise, as was the wont at the time, was South African, had, of course, nothing to do with the decision even though it did help spare the Springboks of total humiliation as they managed to scrape a 13-13 draw, the only non-victory on the Lions’ ledger of account. The 1974 side were the first tourists from anywhere in the world to win a series in South Africa since 1896 and posted all manner of points records in the process. Slattery was very much part of that triumph.
Fergus Slattery in action during the 1971 Lions tour
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
8 – Mervyn Davies
(Wales, 8 Lions caps, 1971 and 1974)
And to think that there might have been many more splendid deeds to have come from Merve ‘The Swerve’ Davies but for the savage blow of a brain haemorrhage following the Welsh Cup semi-final in 1976 that ended his career and almost his life. Davies had captained Wales to a Grand Slam in that year and there was every likelihood that he would have been given the honour of leading the Lions to New Zealand the following year, a task that was taken on by his compatriot Phil Bennett on what was to prove a challenging trip. Davies, lean, rangy and softly spoken, was a modern-day player in the mould of All Black, Kieran Read, an intelligent and wide-roving player, an accomplished lineout operator to boot as New Zealand captain, the gruff Colin Meads, was to observe at the end of the 1971 tour when he acknowledged that Davies had had the opposition ‘donkey-licked,’ at the tail of the lineout. Andy Ripley had gone on that 1974 tour as the slight favourite to get the nod for tests only for Davies’ dexterous athleticism to win the day. Ripley later confided to me that it took him years to come to terms with the decision. But who could argue against Davies?
There are several other contenders, be it the father and son Quinnell double act, Derek and Scott, or Dean Richards, so prominent in Australia and New Zealand in 1989 and then 1993. Lawrence Dallaglio, too, gave mighty service to the Lions cause. Any one of these players would fit the bill. But Davies it is, ever-present in two of the most celebrated tour parties ever to leave these shores and return with reputations well and truly enhanced. The only regret of a marvellous career is that it might have been longer and even more glittering.