Picture this: it’s 1993. Your 19 year old daughter asks you if she can go on her first unsupervised holiday abroad with her best friend. “Of course!”, you say, “How lovely!”
And then a little bit later:
“Where are you going, then?”
New Zealand. The one on the other side of the world. On a rugby tour. What could *possibly* go wrong?
Thank heavens there was no social media in those days, or mobile phones. The only way my parents knew that I’d survived the 3-week trip was when I appeared in the Arrivals lounge at Manchester Airport on my return. I think I might’ve rung my mum from the hotel after the Lions won the second test, because I remember thinking that by drunkenly yelling the result down the phone, I’d spoiled it for her because obviously with the time difference, she wouldn’t have seen it yet.
The ’93 tour was still in the days of the amateur game, and it makes me a little teary-eyed when I reminisce about it. Never again will supporters stagger out on the town on the first night of their arrival in a foreign land in a desperate attempt to stave off the jet lag and see Mick Galway being chucked out of an Irish bar, wait 10 minutes, and then stroll back in as though he owned the place. Well, they might, but not if he was still playing.
Anyway. I survived the NZ tour, albeit I became a little older, a little wiser, and a little more adept at drinking pints of cider. There then followed the fabled 1997 tour to South Africa (completely different to the previous one, as the advent of professionalism slapped its mark on the players. Gone were the days of walking out of a bar to find a taxi and sniggering at a midweek player hugging a bollard in the middle of the road). Then came the 2001 tour to Australia (different again; the Lions were massively popular by now and the whole supporters’ experience was on a vast scale). In between, there was a cheeky trip to NZ again with England - the Tour Of Death, when every self-respecting first choice England player was ‘busy that day’ and couldn’t make it.
If you can afford it, obviously - I’m not advocating getting up to your eyeballs in debt or selling your youngest on eBay. If you’re in any way a rugby fan, or even just a sports fan in general, you must go on a Lions’ tour. In fact, it seems to be a legal requirement for all Welsh citizens to attend a British Lions’ tour - like National Service, but with beer. It’s like no other sporting event you’ll ever experience, except maybe golf’s Ryder Cup. And that’s only 3 days, the bloody lightweights.
Plus, you’ll never get a more legitimate chance to cheer on an Irish fly-half, or to sing a nice song
about Stuart Hogg.
2. You’ll have to seriously train for it. And I don’t just mean a few extra beers on a Saturday night. To give you an example:
I went on the 1997 tour with an organised tour company, but travelled solo. All of my friends were busy with work and, like, being responsible adults and stuff, so I went on my own. On the flight out to Cape Town, I thought I’d drink lots of water, get my head down for a few hours, and arrive in Cape Town feeling refreshed and ready to mingle at the Welcome meeting a few hours’ later.
Twenty minutes’ into the flight, the tour rep obviously took pity on me travelling alone and invited me to meet some fellow travelling supporters at the rear of the plane around the drinks trolley.
I don’t think it’ll surprise any of you to read that I arrived in Cape Town leathered, with 25 new best friends, and on a plane which had not a drop of alcohol left anywhere on board.
I then proceeded to cut myself with a razor whilst drunkenly shaving my legs in the hotel shower and nearly bled to death in the manner of someone way more famous and rock n roll-y than me.
As I already knew everyone else on my tour better than I knew my own family after our boozy flight, I didn’t bother with the Welcome meeting and instead, chose to fall asleep with my nose bent against the coach window for 3 hours on our sightseeing tour of a no-doubt beautiful Cape Town.
Start as you mean to go on, the saying goes - so I did.
The supporters’ tour was 3 weeks’ long. I was drunk all day every day for 2 weeks and 6 days. The one day I was sober was because I had The Fear that I was going to die again, and spent all day and night in my hotel bed, missing the whole of our stay in Sun City. The morning we departed for Johannesburg, I was back on it again, right as rain and ready for my next beer.
The moral of this long-winded and not-very-edifying story, kids, is: Be Prepared. If you’re going to die alone in a hotel room on a rugby tour on the other side of the world, make sure you’re well pickled.
3. You have no idea how low your British inferiority complex can go until you’ve stood in a stadium in deepest South African farming country, shoulder-to-hip with a group of Free State supporters who make giant redwoods look like saplings.
Having said that, and putting aside the humour for a second, I’ve never once felt in any way threatened or vulnerable at this or any other rugby match on my travels. The opposition supporters were of course partisan and vocal, but it was all in the spirit of the match, and the spirit of the Lions. I’ve watched matches in cities and rural areas in New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia, and have always been made to feel welcome and completely comfortable (except the time England played NZ at the old Carisbrooke stadium in Christchurch in 1998. You could count the England supporters on the fingers of two hands, and England were given a thorough beating, so we deemed it tactful to remain quieter than a Trappist monk’s grave).
4. Think you know about rugby? Prepared to be schooled. Southern hemisphere populations are brought up on it - man, woman and child - and even your 78 year old Maori granny taxi driver will have forgotten more about the game than you’ll ever know. I mean, it’s fine for me because despite watching rugby for nearly 30 years, very little of the minutae has actually filtered through, but if you were thinking you were some kind of Bill McLaren, it’ll come as a bit of a shock.
Except the Aussies. They’ve got an embarrassment of sporting riches to feast on, of which rugby union comes further down the list, so you’ve a chance of impressing one with your knowledge of second-phase ruck ball (is that even a thing?).
5. You’re guaranteed some life experiences that will stay with you for the rest of your days.
I’ve been on a 3-day safari which was indescribably stunning - I saw a lioness and her cubs a few feet from our jeep; I flew over the Indian Ocean in a tiny plane and saw a whale in the sea below; I’ve seen a pyramid made of performing sheep, cave after cave of incredible glowworms, and eaten a Maori banquet baked in the ground; I’ve been run off a go-kart track by a then-recently-retired Dean Richards, and watched a thousand silver and gold balloons rise up from the pitch and float over the Johannesburg skyline into a beautiful sunset (I was transfixed with this; it’s genuinely the only bit of the third test I can remember after 3 hours’ at the pre-match drinks’ reception).
But the best bit - the absolute best reason to pay a small fortune and lose 3 weeks’ annual leave - is the people you meet. Before I went to South Africa, I was understandably apprehensive about being a woman in her twenties travelling alone, but I was lucky enough to have the nicest bunch of fellow travellers on my tour that you could ever wish to meet. I’ve never laughed so much or enjoyed myself so much, and aside from apparently trying to kill me with alcohol poisoning, they couldn’t have done more to look after me. Welsh, Scottish, Irish, English - we all came together to support the cause of the British Lions, and that’s what makes the Lions such a unique experience (primarily because, come the next year’s Six Nations, we’ll all be shouting at each other again).
Just do it.