Pat Lam helps his Players to Tackle Their Feelings

“People come down to the Sportsground and look at our bench. It’s filled with a management team that stretches the length of the dugout and beyond. They ask what role each person fulfils. I agree with them in saying that if I was just coaching a rugby team, you wouldn’t need all those people. In fact all you’d require is the head coach and a couple of assistants.

But, you see, it’s not just about the rugby…”


When Pat Lam first toyed with the idea of donning a tracksuit and dishing out instruction, he approached Ian McGeechan his coach at Northampton, for some advice. The British and Irish Lions legend posed a simple question to his captain: “Pat, why do you want to coach?”

On Tuesday night the former Samoan international was speaking at the Connacht Rugby Public Discussion in the G Hotel, as part of IRUPA’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign, in partnership with Zurich. The product of several years of research, IRUPA and Zurich’s initiative has given professional players the platform to engage and address their mental well-being.

Lam would have been particularly impressed by the maturity of one of his own charges as he articulated the difficulties he faced as a youngster growing up in New Zealand. Jake Heenan spoke candidly about losing his way as a teenager including bouts of anti-social behaviour that ultimately led to him being kicked out of his home.

While rugby offered the former captain of the All Blacks’ U-20 side a pathway out of trouble, Lam presented the 24-year-old with an opportunity to leave his past behind and join an intriguing project in the west of Ireland. Having joined in May 2013, Heenan can now set his sights on wearing the green of his adopted home on the international stage having qualified earlier this year.


Heenan was joined on the panel by Dr. Eddie Murphy of RTÉ’s Operation Transformation, Connacht’s most capped player, Michael Swift, and Cathal Sheridan, the former Munster scrum half who has struggled with injury throughout his career.

“I try to ensure that any of my teams have all the tools required to survive and thrive both on the field of play and off it,” Lam continued.

“Often it is family that equips you with those tools and the best families are created by the best environments. I have tried to create something similar at Connacht. Many would agree that our team spirit is our biggest strength.”

In an effort to help foster that familial mentality, Lam has sought to have his players engage on a more wholesome level. While they think little of sweating blood for each other on match days, the tendency is for players to resile in their own bubble once the day’s work is complete. Lam has therefore reintroduced an old Connacht tradition whereby a player offers their own personal story to the group. This week it was the turn of Heenan.

Heenan’s story in particular will resonate with many young people throughout the country. Although he never suffered from any mental health condition, the player acknowledged his difficulties and demonstrated tremendous courage in coming forward from a world that espouses the macho ideal of mental and physical toughness.


“The main feeling I had through this was fear, fear of the unknown, and anger, which was a direct result of being afraid.

“I think it’s important that everyone recognises that we all have our own problems and issues,” Heenan said.

It would appear then that, alongside the work of IRUPA, Pat Lam is helping people to realise their true potential.

“I see young people enter the game as rugby players, but I see them exit as better people.

“That’s the reason why I want to coach.”

Over the coming weeks IRUPA and Zurich will host further panel discussions at the Kingspan Stadium, Belfast on Tuesday October 4 and at Lansdowne Rugby Club, Dublin on Wednesday October 12.

To watch Jake’s video, and for more information on Tackle Your Feelings, click here.


Joey Carbery: An Understudy?

Leinster v Bath - Pre-Season Friendly

Dublin , Ireland – 26 August 2016; Joey Carbery of Leinster during the Pre-Season Friendly game between Leinster and Bath at Donnybrook Stadium in Donnybrook, Dublin. (Photo By Matt Browne/Sportsfile via Getty Images)


Graham Henry believes that both Leinster and Ireland will have no need to worry once Jonny Sexton hangs up his boots, or so the story goes. Gordon D’Arcy would tend to agree, while Rob Kearney has been similarly impressed by Joey Carbery’s start to the 2016/2017 season.

“We’ve seen his potential over the past number of months on a daily basis and obviously he starred for Clontarf last year,” the Irish fullback said. “It’s important that guys are rewarded for how they are performing and you saw how superb he was [against Treviso]. He showed that he’s right at home at this level.” High praise indeed. But just who is Joey Carbery?

A relatively new face to Irish rugby fans, the young out-half took little time to introduce himself to the most critical analysts of all. Within the first three minutes of his career in professional rugby, Carbery’s sleight of foot and strength in contact saw him go under the posts for Leinster’s first try of the season. Another effort later in the half further exhibited his attacking flair. Picking up a loose ball just shy of his own 22, Carbery slipped a tackle before showing plenty of gas to race clear and step outside the last line of defence.

Yet we need not be fooled by his Kiwi accent. Having moved to the country from his native New Zealand at the age of 11, Carbery is very much a product of the Irish development system having progressed through both the clubs’ and schools’ scene.

“I was born with a rugby ball in my hand,” he admits, speaking to Pundit Arena. “My father, my grandfather and his father before him all played rugby to a decent level back at home. Dad played representative rugby until he moved to Ireland at 21 and met my mother. In time they moved back to Auckland where I was born.” When settling in his mother’s homeland of Athy a number of years later, Carbery quickly became involved with the local rugby club and developed his game under the influential tutelage of his father, a former half back for the Blackrock College club.

“I played up to U19s at Athy. I was always involved in the older teams. We always had a good bunch of guys there so no matter what grade I played with we seemed to get to a Leinster final. We never won but we always seemed to be there or thereabouts. The only problem was that Blackrock were always there too.”

Having tasted representative rugby as a scrum half with Leinster Youths, Carbery sensed that schools’ rugby might offer the clearest path into the professional game. He, therefore, jumped at the opportunity to go to Blackrock College for his final year of schooling.

“There was a lot more training involved and a bit more structure than I had ever been used to at Athy. Personally, it was probably more in line with my own thinking of how I needed to progress my game if I was to have any hope of pushing on. We had a great side too which helped. Nick Timoney, Jeremy Loughman – I think every one of us played provincial rugby at some level.”


Carbery was deployed at full back and Sean Kearns (currently leading St. Mary’s impressive start to the UBL season), featured at out half as Blackrock prevailed to claim their 68th Senior Cup title following an exciting win over Clongowes Wood in the final. But while his rugby motives were vindicated, Carbery was equally determined to get a good Leaving Certificate. This year he continues his Sports and Exercise Management course at UCD. Although his education remains of importance, Carbery’s growing role in Leinster will undoubtedly have shifted his ranking of priorities.

“I’ve worked hard on my game, but I’m only just starting out. There are many more years of work ahead. The pace of the PRO12 was a definite step up from the UBL. I’m beginning to get a grasp on it but I had to adapt my game slightly at the outset.

“Not for one moment did I think I could make an impact in that manner. The management would appear to have belief in me in that they’ve been given a bit of freedom to bring my own game to the table – to play to the line and whatever is in front of me. From time to time, when I push the boat out a little too far, they’ll pull me back and canvas the safe option but that’s all part of the learning experience. I’m just trying to enjoy every bit of it at the moment.”

With Jonny Sexton making an impressive return to the fray in the Friday’s 31-19 victory over the Ospreys, Carbery had to make do with a late cameo off the Leinster bench. Despite his remarkable start to the season, the youngster is all too aware that his early season form will need to continue should he wish to remain involved. While Ian Madigan’s departure has created a void below Sexton, Carbery, Cathal Marsh and Ross Byrne have all feasibly targeted the understudy role.

“Ross and I have been toe-to-toe for a number of years now. I struck it lucky with the Irish U20s when he got injured for the Junior World Championships in 2015. Ross had started throughout the Six Nations earlier that year and had played extremely well. It’s never nice to see a mate get injured, but when my opportunity arose, I had to take it and I felt that I had a decent tournament. Momentum has continued to build ever since.”

Such impetus was carried into the Ulster Bank League season last year as Carbery led Clontarf’s assault on the title. Following his Man of the Match performance in their victory over Cork Constitution in the final, coach Andy Wood duly remarked that he was resigned to losing their “special player” to the professional ranks. The player though will always fondly remember his time with the club.

“At Blackrock we had everything going for us. We were the dominant side throughout the year. But at Clontarf we didn’t make it easy for ourselves. A few trips to Munster in the depths of winter didn’t exactly suit our style! We really had to work at our all-round game. We had some serious talent in that side though with Conor O’Brien, who’s now in the Leinster Academy and the likes of Mick McGrath who’s also in and out of the Leinster set-up. It’s probably my greatest achievement to date.”


Going into this campaign as fourth choice below Byrne and Marsh, Carbery’s graceful and at times steely game has seen him stick his neck out ahead of his rivals. “Ross and I were in the Academy together and Cathal Marsh was just a few years ahead. We all know each other quite well at this stage. We’re all competitive but the reality is that they’re really nice guys and we do what we can to help each other out. There’s a lot of give and take, which can only be healthy from both an individual and collective perspective.”

A quiet and mannerly young man, Carbery is not short of confidence in his own game – a telling trait in an aspiring out half. Given his form and potential, it is increasingly likely that Joe Schmidt will invite Carbery to join up with an extended Irish squad ahead of the November internationals. The youngster remains unfazed.

“My immediate goal is to get into the Leinster team every week, even when Johnny is available for selection. As one of the best in the game, I try to learn as much as I can from him, but ultimately I have to hope to oust him from the team.

“He’s very helpful but you learn more by watching him. He wouldn’t be one of these guys that take you under their wing, advising you on various aspects of your game. He trusts that you haven’t just fallen into that position so he expects you to be of the standard that Leinster deserves – and he knows what your objective is!”

“But who knows… maybe New Zealand will come calling before then!”

Ireland: Five Surprise Selections Schmidt Could Make Ahead Of The November Internationals

Ireland’s recent endeavours in South Africa have shown the merits of introducing a dash of freshness into the camp. Several fringe players put their hands up in the intimidating environments of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

While they ultimately failed to finish out the job, several of the more inexperienced troop will have undoubtedly benefitted from the experience. Many of those will now look forward to playing important roles as Ireland seek to secure their first ever win against the All Blacks

Joe Schmidt has often been criticised for neglecting to pick untried, albeit form, players and that is unlikely to change as he chases that elusive victory over New Zealand. Lists of this nature therefore often tend to be a fruitless exercise. However, now that he is believed to have committed his long-term future to the country, perhaps he will consider those who will be at the heart of the side he is due to depart in 2019.

The likes of Garry Ringrose and Ross Molony have long been touted for international recognition, but there are several others who are more than capable of making the step up and contributing to both the short and long-term future of Ireland.


Joey Carberry

Following his brief consultancy period with Leinster, Graham Henry apparently stated that Irish rugby need not fear for the day that Jonny Sexton hangs up his boots. The reason? Joey Carberry.

Entering into the season as Leinster’s fourth choice out-half behind Cathal Marsh and Ross Byrne, Carberry grasped his opportunities with aplomb and has been a revelation when tasked with steering the Leinster ship.

While Sexton’s return may hamper Carberry’s immediate first team hopes, the Auckland-born youngster has shown enough quality to suggest that he is at home at this level and is destined to thrive. There are aspects to his game that will undoubtedly need tending to, but his raw footballing ability and attacking nous ensures that an exciting future lies ahead of him.

Leinster v Bath - Pre-Season Friendly

Dublin , Ireland – 26 August 2016; Joey Carbery of Leinster during the Pre-Season Friendly game between Leinster and Bath at Donnybrook Stadium in Donnybrook, Dublin. (Photo By Matt Browne/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

With a two-try salvo against Treviso in the opening game of the Pro 12, Carberry announced himself on the domestic scene in some style. Needless to say, Joe Schmidt will certainly have noticed his compatriot’s impact.

As has been Schmidt’s want, Carberry can expect to be invited along to train with an extended Irish panel ahead of the November series. Should his form continue apace, he has every right to be included on merit. Carberry turns 21 on the eve of Ireland’s game against the All Blacks, but while he may yet be too young to be thrust onto the highest of test stages, he stands a reasonable chance of being Paddy Jackson’s standby when Ireland take on the Canadians.


Jack O’Donoghue

Rassie Erasmus was left angered when Jack O’Donoghue was stretchered from the field during Munster’s 28-14 win over Edinburgh on Saturday. Thankfully, the 22-year-old returned to the sidelines before the end of the game, but such has been his influence that O’Donoghue has become an integral part of the South African’s plan for the province.

Despite having received a call-up to the Six Nations squad ahead of Ireland’s fixtures against Italy and Scotland, Schmidt resisted any temptation to summon O’Donoghue to South Africa in the summer opting instead for Ulster’s Sean Reidy and Rhys Ruddock of Leinster.


Yet competition on the international front is as fierce as ever. The likes of Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander remain top of the pile, Tommy O’Donnell remains in the mix while Josh van der Flier’s return to form at the weekend will not help O’Donoghue’s claims.

However, with Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony still on the comeback trail, O’Donoghue’s impressive early-season form means that Schmidt can’t overlook the Munster man. With all the tools to be a top class No. 8, Jamie Heaslip’s eternal tenure at the base of the Irish scrum may ultimately give way to the Waterford man.


Darren Sweetnam

While Rob Lyttle has been grabbing all the headlines with several notable performances for Ulster already this season, Darren Sweetnam has become a central figure in Erasmus’ Munster revolution.

The former Cork hurler joined the academy in October 2012 but struggled to make much of an impact whilst several of his colleagues pushed on. Erasmus now refers to the outside back as one of his ‘go-to men’ and simply puts his gradual progression down to his distracted rugby beginnings.


Although the back three department is a congested space, Sweetnam’s attributes are sure to have found their way onto Joe Schmidt’s radar. Defensively sound, tricky in attack and dominant in the air, the Bandon man is technically superior to a number of those at Schmidt’s disposal. If he continues in this vein, Sweetnam will get his opportunity in green sooner rather than later.


Dan Leavy

Highly regarded at Leinster, Leavy was pinpointed as a potential back row star of the future before Josh van der Flier jumped the queue and became an international player during the 2016 Six Nations.

Finally, having endured a sometimes-difficult beginning to his professional career, Leavy has seemingly overcome his injury problems to feature regularly in the Leinster side this season.


Featuring in all of the opening games of this campaign, Leavy has proven himself to be a valuable asset in Leo Cullen’s squad. Ironically, given that it is one of Leavy’s principle attributes, his versatility may have counted against him last weekend.

Having been shifted about between 6, 7 and 8 (performing well in each) Leo Cullen preferred to call upon more regular custodians of those shirts in Heaslip, Van der Flier and Jordi Murphy on for the Ospreys’ visit to the RDS, while it was Rhys Ruddock who first emerged from the bench to replace the latter.

However, with several prominent displays already, including a superb evening in Edinburgh where he claimed two tries, Leavy’s resourcefulness stands his international prospects in good stead.


Alan O’Connor

International recognition would be a fitting chapter in Alan O’Connor’s story.

Rejected by Leinster, O’Connor’s career seemed to be written off before it had even begun. Having failed to make the Ireland U-20s side for the Six Nations in 2012, O’Connor was subsequently included in the travelling party to the Junior World Championship in South Africa. However, before the squad flew out O’Connor was informed that he would have no place in the Leinster Academy upon his return. Allen Clarke of Ulster duly capitalised.

Despite Franco van der Merwe, Pete Browne, Dan Tuohy and O’Connor all competing for a spot in Ulster’s second-row, the 24-year-old has managed to become the frontrunner for the position on a weekly basis.


Following Paul O’Connell’s retirement last year, Schmidt has looked to several options to fill a considerable void. One of those, O’Connor’s Ulster colleague Iain Henderson (the man many see as being the most capable of filling those considerable boots), has been regularly shifted to accommodate the in-form Dubliner.

Furthermore, in what was something of a surprise, Connacht’s Quinn Roux earned a call-up in the summer and acquitted himself well. On that basis, O’Connor can’t be too far away.

10 of the Lengthiest Bans in Rugby


When Chris Ashton summoned his inner Luis Suarez and wanted a chunk of the arm of Northampton’s Alex Waller at a ruck during Saracen’ 27-12 Premiership victory on Saturday, it became the latest in a series of disciplinary issues which have come to blight the English winger’s career.

Banned for 10 weeks for eye-gouging Luke Marshall last season, Ashton has been handed a 13-week suspension on this occasion having been found guilty on two counts of biting.

Here we take a brief look at some of the lengthiest bans ever handed down in the sport.

Ironically, several of those who appear on this list would go on make a bigger name in the game and beyond on account of their misdemeanors.


  1. Dylan Hartley – 6 months (cumulative)

Where else is there to begin? Current England captain Hartley is notorious for appearing before disciplinary bodies. The New Zealand born hooker first met with a severe wrap on the knuckles when he was banned for 26 weeks for gouging both James Haskell and Johnny O’Connor of Wasps while playing for Northampton.

In March 2012, Stephen Ferris felt the wrath of Hartley’s teeth during the Six Nations – a deed for which Hartley received an 8-week ban. He was back to haunt the Irish in December of that year and was handed a two-week ban for striking Rory Best while on club duty.

Hartley was then embroiled in yet more controversy when he directed a torrent of verbal abuse at referee Wayne Barnes in the Premiership final of 2013. A shoe-in to travel, Hartley missed the 2013 Lions tour of Australia through his 11-week suspension.

In what seems like to be a means of securing an annual vacation, Hartley was then banned for three weeks for elbowing Leicester winger Matt Smith in December 2014.

While in May of 2015 he head butted Jamie George of Saracens, his main challenger for the English No.2 jersey – an incident that duly had him withdrawn from England’s Rugby World Cup plans.


  1. David Attoub – 70 weeks


Alongside teammate Julien Dupuy, Attoub became a hated figure throughout much of Ireland following his vicious eye-gouging attempt on Stephen Ferris during a 2009 Heineken Cup encounter between Ulster and Stade Francais. The presiding judge claimed that it was “the worst case of contact with the eyes I have had to deal with. It is a case of deliberate eye-gouging.”

Attoub’s history failed to help his cause – the prop had also been banned for a similar offence during a European Cup match in 2004/5.

In what appeared to have been a tactic employed by the Frenchmen, scrum-half Dupuy sought to scratch Ferris’ eye out and received a 23 week ban.

However, Attoub’s penalty was not the most stringent handed down for something of this nature. In 1999, Richard Nones of Colomiers, a salesman, was given the maximum two-year ban for gouging.


  1. Johan le Roux – 18 months


When South African prop Johan le Roux came into contact with New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick in 1994, few anticipated how that the All Black would emerge without a portion of his ear.

The first ‘beast’ of South African rugby, le Roux was promptly sent home by management in the aftermath of the 13-9 defeat.

Although the incident was not spotted by Irish referee Brian Stirling, Fitzpatrick made a complaint which was later investigated.

Upon receiving a lengthy suspension le Roux exclaimed: “For an 18 month ban, I should have torn it right off!”


  1. Matt Stevens – 2 years

Capped for England at 21 and a Lion in 2005, Matt Stevens was the epitome of the modern prop. Technical in tight, allied to excellent footwork in the loose, Stevens was easily one of the best front-row operators in the Northern Hemisphere.

However, when Stevens travelled as a Lion for the second time in 2013, many argued that the integrity of the touring side should be called into question with the South African born prop aboard the plane.

Despite his good form, Stevens had been banned for a period of two years in 2009 when he tested positive for cocaine following Bath’s Heineken Cup encounter with Glasgow.

Credit where credit is due, Stevens sought to reestablish himself in the game upon his return. Ostracised by much of the English rugby community, Saracens made the contentious decision to offer the prop a path to redemption, leading to that Lions recall.

Stevens was further embraced by the English public when he carved out a name for being quite the character following his appearance on a celebrity edition of the X Factor. “Weirdly, the drug ban was one of the best things to ever happen to me,” he later said.


  1. Wendell Sailor – 2 years

Once a formidable and powerful Australian international winger, Sailor tested positive for cocaine in 2006 whilst playing for NSW Waratahs.

He was suspended for 2 years for playing any sport that subscribed to Australian and international anti-doping regulations. Sailor was already under much scrutiny but had returned to fine form after the Waratahs sent him home from South Africa earlier that same year for a late-night indiscretion at a nightclub.

Upon the expiration of his ban in 2008, Sailor opted to return to his rugby league roots before turning his hand to TV, presenting Australia’s Greatest Athlete.


  1. Julien Caminati – 33 months

First banned at the age of 18 for spitting at a referee in a French Fourth Division fixture, Caminati further cemented his growing bad-boy reputation when, following his reduced 26 month suspension, the book was once again thrown at him for a drugs offence whilst playing for Brive.

He is also remembered in his homeland for several red cards and a punch on Dmitri Yachvili.


  1. Dean Richards – 3 years

As Harlequins’ Director of Rugby, Dean Richards was charged with plotting the downfall of an in-form Leinster squad in the midst of a rampage through Europe.

To do so he formulated a devious plan that involved the purchase of fake blood capsules from a joke shop in Clapham.

With the game delicately poised at 6-5 to the Irish side, Richards sought to reintroduce Nick Evans, a goalkicker and potential match winner, back into the fold. Late in the game, Tom Williams on the Quins wing appeared to succumb to an injury late in the game.

Richards signalled to the officials and Evans re-entered the fray as a ‘blood replacement’. As he was being withdrawn and with blood apparently streaming from his mouth, Williams winked at his teammate. Few batted an eyelid but the ERC became suspicious and later determined that the blood pumping from his mouth was in fact fake.

A former England and Lions legend, Richards fine reputation in the game was tarnished. He received a 3 year ban, while Williams was suspended for 12 months (later reduced to 4 months).


  1. Trevor Brennan – 5 years

“Of course I have regrets about what happened that day, I reacted without thinking of the consequences,” admitted Trevor Brennan upon reflecting on his assault of an Ulster fan whilst warming-up for Toulouse in January 2007.

Much loved by the home support for his no nonsense approach to the game, few expected anybody outside the field of play would encounter his renowned physicality. Brennan retired from the game

Despite announcing his retirement in the aftermath of the incident, Brennan was hit with a lifetime ban. However, the suspension was subsequently reduced on appeal when it was convincingly argued that the player had been subjected to verbal abuse of his mother, prompting his reaction á la Zinedine Zidane.


  1. Dean Colclough – 8 years

Although his misdemeanor occurred off the Swansea playing field and several years following his retirement, Dean Colclough’s suspension is notable in that it was the biggest ban to be handed down in the UK for a first offence.

Although still registered for Morriston RFC, Colclough’s career was effectively ended by injury in 2007. Somewhat admirably, Colclough showed his entrepreneurial flair when he set-up and ran a company that produced and distributed muscle-building substances.

However, when Sam Chalmers, the 19 year-old son of Scotland and Lions out-half, was banned for two years for testing positive for anabolic steroids at a Scotland U20 training session in May 2013, the source was soon revealed.

Colclough was suspended from all sport for eight years for using his company to possess and distribute steroids.


  1. Michel Palmie – Life

Think of a big and cuddly Sebastien Chabal and you are still some distance from Michel Palmie.

In 1978, the Beziers and French international second row finally met his comeuppance. After years of “punching and gouging his way from Paris to Toulouse” Palmie was met with a lifetime ban for partially blinding Armand Clerc of Racing Club following a punch up.

In some circles, Palmie is not even described as the worst of Frenchmen during that period. His teammate, Gerard Cholley, a former heavyweight boxer and paratrooper, felled four Scotsmen with his fists in one game in 1977.

Palmie’s contribution to the game was not yet finished though. He later represented the French Rugby Federation as an official.


The Token Mention: Chris Jones – Life (x2)

Although little known outside the Valleys, Chris Jones wrought havoc on the rugby field throughout his playing days. “I would kick or stamp on an opponent’s head without a second thought,” admits the former Treorchy prop who used to carry an axe to matches.

Such was Jones’ behaviour that he was ultimately forced to retire from the game having been banned for life, not once, but twice for violent behaviour. Now a born again Christian, Jones has earned great credit for his subsequent coaching contributions to junior rugby in Wales.


The Irish Angel: Peter Clohessy – 9 months

“I just kind of leaned on his head with my boot,” says Peter Clohessy of his kicking of Olivier Roumat’s head during Ireland’s 45-10 defeat to France in the 1995 Five Nations. “Neil Francis was reporting on the match and he said to me “I think you are in a bit of trouble.’ I asked ‘why, what happened?’ I had actually forgotten about it.”

Clohessy was suspended for six months, with many suggesting his days in the Irish jersey were behind him despite being just 29 years of age.

Clohessy did return to the game, however his reputation for his rough-handed conduct preceded him thereafter. Clohessy had form – in 1993 he was suspended for 10 weeks for a stamp during a Young Munster and st. Mary’s All-Ireland league game.

The Claw went some way to redeeming his standing in the game during the years leading up to his retirement in 2002.

Indeed, he is largely credited for instilling a sense of identity and doggedness in a Munster side that would go on to conquer Europe in 2006 and 2008.

The Greatest Lions of the Professional Era

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British Lions Tour to Australia

SYDNEY – JULY 14: Martin Johnson (far left) of the British Lions rallies his team-mates during the third and final Test Match played between the British and Irish Lions and the Australia held on July 14, 2001 at Stadium Australia, in Sydney, Australia. Australia won the match 29-23. (Photo by Nick Wilson/Getty Images)


The dawn of the professional era cast much doubt over the sustainability of the infamous British and Irish Lions tours. However, despite much scrutiny and several underwhelming campaigns, the Lions remain one of the novel aspects of a continuously evolving game.

“Probably the most powerful brand in world rugby,” according to Sean Fitzpatrick, there is little fear of the Lions being dispensed with anytime soon.

Here we take a brief look at the players who have best acquitted themselves in the famous red jersey since rugby became a means of earning a livelihood.


15. Leigh Halfpenny (2009 & 2013)

Although Neil Jenkins made his name as an out-half, he played a pivotal role for the Lions from fullback in 1997. However, his compatriot played an even greater part in Australia three years ago. While Rob Kearney was immense when the Lions came up just short in 2009, Leigh Halfpenny’s boot, running game and aerial prowess assured the Lions of success in 2013.

Halfpenny was deservedly named the Player of the Series. If the Lions are to have any hope of dismantling the All Blacks next year, the 27-year-old’s form and fitness will be a determining factor.


14. George North (2013)

North was assured of his place in the Lions’ folklore when he jaunted to the line from within his own half in the first test in Brisbane in 2013. His legend was further embellished when he scooped up Israel Folau on his shoulder and used the Australian as a shield against would-be tacklers the following week.

Several players have lined out on the wing down through the years with only Tommy Bowe appearing with any regularity. However, given his contribution to the 2013 tour, North is an obvious choice for this side.


13. Brian O’Driscoll (2001, 2005, 2009 & 2013)

Waltzing O’Driscoll captained the Lions on the last fateful trip to New Zealand in 2005. Famously, his tenure was cut short by the combined efforts of Kevin Mealamu and Tana Umaga. Having participated on four tours, O’Driscoll finally secured an elusive series victory in 2013, albeit from the stands.

Nevertheless, O’Driscoll has provided Lions fans with many memories – none moreso than his slalom break through the Australian defence in 2001.


12. Scott Gibbs (1993, 1997 & 2001)

Following a brief flirtation with rugby league, Gibbs returned to the union code prior to the 1997 tour to South Africa. Having been selected to travel to New Zealand in 1993 at just 22 years of age, Gibbs was already an experienced tourist when he lined out alongside Jeremy Guscott in the Lions midfield.


One of the toughest tacklers in the game, Gibbs’ hard-hitting game (in both attack and defence) embodied the 2-1 series victory over the world champions. The Welshman was duly named the Player of the Series. In 2001, Gibbs returned to the Lions fray as a late replacement but did not make the test squad.


11. John Bentley (1997)

Interestingly, John Bentley only appeared for England on four occasions. Like Gibbs, Bentley switched between rugby codes throughout his career. However, his galvanising influence, both on and off the field, during the 1997 tour has cemented his place in Lions history.

With dazzling attacking ability, Bentley’s creativity earned him a seat on the plane. Following his prolific pre-test form, Bentley was named on the wing in the second and third games against the South Africans. His cult status has him selected here ahead of the likes of Jason Robinson and Shane Williams.


10. Jonny Wilkinson (2001 & 2005)

While Gregor Townsend and Jonathon Sexton were members of victorious squads, Wilkinson’s 67 points in six games places him at the top of the pile. Arguably one of the best fly-halves to have ever played the game, Wilkinson almost steered the Lions to victory down under in 2001.

Injured in 2009, Wilkinson turned down what would have been a sensational return to Lions duty in 2013 following an impressive season for Toulon.


9. Matt Dawson (1997 & 2001)

When the in-form Rob Howley suffered an injury in 1997, Dawson was thrust into the spotlight ahead of Austin Healey. A cunning operator, Dawson had the South Africans reeling in the first test.

Breaking from the base of the scrum, Dawson threw an overhead dummy before scampering to the line. Dawson also travelled to Australia in 2001 where he started the third test, again at the expense of an injured Howley.


8. Scott Quinnell (1997 & 2001)

Denied of any significant involvement in 1997 owing to a double-hernia issue, Quinnell was determined to make up for lost time in Australia four years later.


First Test 30/6/2001 British and Irish Lions vs Australia Scott Quinnell of the Lions celebrates his try Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

The smile on his face as he burrowed his way under the posts in the first test to put the Lions into an unassailable lead became one of the iconic images of what should have been a victorious Lions tour. Toby Faletau and Jamie Heaslip will continue to stake a claim next summer.


7. Neil Back (1997, 2001 & 2005)

The Dallaglio, Hill and Back triumvirate became accustomed to success on the international stage. Having made his England debut in 1994, Back was a virtual certainty for the Lions by 1997.

A tourist again in 2001 and 2005, Back became the oldest Lion to have played a test match when he started the opening game of the series in New Zealand.


6. Richard Hill (1997, 2001 & 2005)

Although Lawrence Dallaglio was a force to be reckoned with in 1997, injury severely curtailed his Lions career thereafter. Richard Hill, his long-time international colleague, was similarly exceptional in South Africa before excelling in 2001 when he was named as the Player of the Series.

Hill also travelled to New Zealand in 2005 but had his third tour cut short by injury in the first test.


5. Paul O’Connell (2005, 2009 & 2013)

Captain of the 2009 vintage, O’Connell earned eight test caps for the Lions. Overlooked for the captaincy in 2013, O’Connell remained the spiritual leader of the group.

His commitment to the cause was best illustrated when the second-row broke his arm in the first test in Australia but finished out the tight victory.


4. Martin Johnson (1993, 1997 & 2001)

The only man to have captained two touring sides, Johnson first travelled with the Lions as a late replacement in 1993.

In South Africa four years later Johnson was a colossus while his reputation was further embellished by the way in which he managed a difficult tour to Australia in 2001.


3. Paul Wallace (1997)

Regarded as the cornerstone of the Lions scrum by Fran Cotton in 1997, Wallace was widely acclaimed for his performances in South Africa.

Martin Johnson has since attributed much of the Lions’ success to Wallace’s hard work throughout each of the three tests – Wallace was one of five to have played every minute of a momentous tour.


2. Keith Wood (1997 & 2001)

One of the greatest players to have graced the game, Keith followed in the footsteps of his father, Gordon, who toured with the Lions in 1950.


Sensational anytime he pulled on a Lions jersey, Wood was an integral part of the South African adventure of 1997 before excelling once again in Australia four years later.


1. Tom Smith (1997, 2001)

One of the unlikely heroes of the 1997 tour, Smith continued his fine Lions career in Australia where he once again packed down at tighthead for each test fixture.

Smith now enjoys a cult status amongst Lions fans for his hard work and ball handling skills.