Where Does The British And Irish Lions Tour Rank Amongst The Toughest Trips In Sport?

Warren Gatland's side face a monumental task to win in South Africa...
10:45, 24 Jul 2021

The British and Irish Lions play the first of their three test matches against South Africa today, with the trio of clashes all taking place inside the Cape Town Stadium.

The Lions squad is made up of the best rugby union talent that our shores have to offer, but have only managed three tour victories in the last 11 attempts dating back to 1977.

Last time out, in 2017, the Lions and New Zealand tied the series with a victory, draw and defeat each to boast of. That has only happened once before, back in 1955, and the British contingent have notoriously struggled in South Africa, and even more so in New Zealand.

The Lions have played 46 test matches in South Africa to date, winning just 17 and losing 23. They’ve played five fewer in New Zealand, and have won just seven tests against the Kiwis in that time.

Naturally, the quality of opposition has a huge impact on the results, but there is a lot to be said for the location of the tours impacting the outcome.

Take England for example, they have played 22 matches against the Springboks on home soil, winning 10. Compare that tally to when played in South Africa, and the 2003 World Cup winners can only boast of four victories in 16 attempts.

Taking on such formidable opponents in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia is a tough enough ask in itself, but having to do so in their own back yard makes the task all the more daunting.

The conditions are different, the weather normally a far cry from what the British players are used to back at home, and the general way of life while spending six weeks on a different continent alters.

However, the main hurdle that travelling Lions outfits have struggled to overcome in the past is the home fans.

Lions coach Warren Gatland has already endeared himself to the hearts of British rugby fans, given that he guided his squad to a 2-1 series victory in Australia. He then managed a feat that no other head coach has done since Carwyn James in 1971 – he avoided a series defeat in his native New Zealand.

Sure, James won the series back then, but in coming home with a tied series to build on, Gatland and his troops could be proud of their achievements.

Can he become the first Lions boss in history to play all three of the major southern hemisphere nations and remain undefeated?

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His job is made that bit easier in that there will be no crowds allowed inside the Cape Town Stadium, as a result of Covid-19 restrictions.

There can be no denying that winning matches on the road represents a more difficult challenge, and the fans that usually ‘welcome’ the British stars are ferocious.

Sure, there would historically be a healthy Lions following trying to drown out the home crowd, but the atmosphere represents an intimidating one even for the bravest of athletes.

There is a strong argument to be made for the Lions tours being the most difficult to win, given that they are always on the road.

However, perhaps as a nod to the future where we can welcome back fans to all events, lets take a look at some other sporting spectacles where the spectators give the away outfit a tougher time than they already expected.

The Ashes

The very fact that England haven’t lost an Ashes series on home soil since 2001, while only managing one victory in Australia since 1987 really does tell the story for us.

The pitches and the way they play make a considerable difference, with fast bowlers enjoying more success in Australia given that the ball bounces more. A different ball manufacturer is used down under, and of course the weather is much different to what we are accustomed to on our shores.

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Players at the top of their sport can adapt to these differing conditions, it’s what they’re paid to do. It is more difficult to ignore the sledging, from the home players but even more so from the home crowd.

Momentum can quickly turn in a game of cricket, with the crowd cheering every home run and booing every move the away team make often having a major impact.

It’s just human nature.

Ryder Cup

The same can be said for the Ryder Cup. Every two years the best golfers from Europe and the United States go to battle in a bid for the prestigious trophy.

With tournaments taking place regularly throughout the PGA Tour, competitors from both continents are used to playing away from home. However, the crowd comes to life when the Ryder Cup comes to town.

When played in the USA, every American swing of a club or sink of a putt is roared home by the onlooking spectators, and the away team are often jeered for the entirety of their 18 holes.

The exact same happens when the tournament takes place in Europe, and there is no denying that the assembled teams celebrate more passionately when winning on the road – much to the annoyance of the home crowd! 

Boxing

There is a thought process from within boxing that the home fighter is already up by a few points before a punch is thrown.

It’s easy to see why. Boxing fans are a ferocious bunch at the best of times, and they are known to celebrate every punch thrown by their fighter, whether it lands or not.

It shouldn’t, but such a reaction from a home following desperate to see their man have his arm raised can undoubtedly influence the score cards of the judges.

This is why Oleksandr Usyk’s record of winning on the road is so impressive, as not many can boast a travelling success rate like the Ukrainian.

Football

Football fans often receive widespread criticism, some of it completely unwarranted. However, there can be no denying that having thousands of fans screaming your every touch can have an impact on performance, positively or negatively.

Take Liverpool for example. Under Jurgen Klopp, the Reds had enjoyed a 68-game unbeaten streak at Anfield, and then the pandemic hit. Fans weren’t allowed in the stadiums, and a home defeat to Burnley was followed by back-to-back reverses against Brighton and Man City. Anfield, and the Kop in particular, is famous for its intimidating atmosphere and taking the fans out of the equation very much acts as an equaliser.

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A similar impact can be expected in major international tournaments. In 2002, host nations Japan and South Korea both topped their World Cup groups. Japan were unbeaten in a group containing Belgium, Russia and Tunisia, while South Korea boasted the same record against the USA, Portugal and Poland.

Incredibly, tournament underdogs South Korea stormed to the semi-final stage after knockout victories over Italy and Spain before falling to a late defeat against Germany.

The fans make a huge difference, in all sports, and we cannot wait to have full stadiums and arenas across the globe.

For now though, with the absence of a South African home following, Gatland and his British and Irish Lions could be on the brink of history.

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