Drawing on the collective resources of four different nations, selection for a British and Irish Lions tour is always open to much debate and intrigue. None more so than when a relatively unknown or uncapped player beats off competition from more experienced rivals to make it on the plane to New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.
These so-called ‘bolters’ – a term derived from horse-racing to describe a runner who has come from nowhere to shock the field – have been few and far between in the professional era because, with more tests played, there are more opportunities for national team coaches to blood youngsters and experiment.
However, this year there could be something of a throwback to a bygone age, when surprise picks were more commonplace, with the likes of Scotland winger Duhan van der Merwe, classy England centre Joe Marchant and utility back Ioan Lloyd, still only 19 with two replacement appearances for Wales to his name, all having realistic claims on the famous red jersey.
Here, we take a look at some famous past examples of players who have not let inexperience stand in their way and gone on to become Lions bolters.
Keith Earls (2009)
Ireland’s second-highest try-scorer of all time was only one year into his senior Munster career when he made the cut for the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa. Although he failed to win a cap, Earls came away from the tour with two tries from five appearances and an enhanced reputation. Untimely injuries and loss of form meant he never toured again.
Jason Robinson (2001)
Wing wizard Robinson had less than a year of rugby union under his belt when he toured Australia in 2001. But any lingering doubts over his worthiness of a place on the tour were dispelled in the first test in Brisbane, when he turned experienced Wallaby full-back Chris Latham inside and out to score a stunning try. Robinson added another in the final game of the series and also made the trip to New Zealand in 2005, with the small matter of a Rugby World Cup win in between!
Will Greenwood (1997)
The supremely-talented England centre remains the last and only uncapped player of the professional era to be called up for a Lions tour when selected by Sir Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer for the trip to South Africa. Greenwood’s involvement in that tour was cut short when he was knocked unconscious and swallowed his tongue in a match against the Cheetahs, and an ankle injury prevented him from being capped in Australia four years later. However, he finally got to run out in a Lions test in New Zealand in 2005, making his debut at the grand old age of 33.
John Bentley (1997)
Bentley’s banter and love of life made him the ideal tourist for the Lions in 1997, but few people outside of those in rugby league circles really knew what he was capable of on the pitch when he converted back to the 15-man code along with fellow tourists Scott Gibbs and Alan Tait.
The Yorkshireman had few chances to show what he was capable of when twice capped for England during the late 1980s, but he thrived on the Lions tour, appearing in two tests and scoring a sensational try against Gauteng Lions. Bentley often jokes about how he has dined off that try ever since.
Eric Miller (1997)
Aged 21 and the youngest member of the tour party, back-row Miller was definitely green in international rugby terms when he toured South Africa in 1997.
Only four months had passed since he’d made his Ireland debut and a place in the test side looked unlikely, especially after the Dubliner broke his cheekbone during his first appearance against Border.
It was a massive blow for a player who’d been riding the crest of a wave in a breakthrough season for Ireland and Leicester, but Miller recovered in time to be considered for the business end of the series and won his one and only Lions cap off the bench as a blood replacement for Tim Rodber in Durban.
Martin Johnson (1993)
The two-time Lions captain and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee became a tourist for the first time in New Zealand in 1993, the same year that he made his England bow. Johnson’s only cap prior to departure for New Zealand, the country where he’d learnt his second-row trade a few years earlier under the watchful eye of Colin Meads, had been against France.
Thrown straight into the starting line-up as injury cover for Wade Dooley, Johnson more than held his own and was selected for the England A tour to Canada that summer. Whilst there, news came through that he was required by the Lions, but instead of simply making up the numbers, Johnson started in two of the tests.
In the years that followed, Johnson captained the Lions in 1997 and 2001 and led England to victory at Rugby World Cup 2003.
Jeremy Guscott (1989)
The classy Bath centre earned selection for the 1989 tour to Australia even before his hat-trick on debut for England against Romania.
“Now Dawson, gives it back to Guscott, and Guscott kicks the drop, and the Lions are in the lead!” 😆— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) July 7, 2020
Wishing a very Happy Birthday to @JeremyGuscott - scorer of one of the most memorable drop goals in #LionsRugby history 🦁 pic.twitter.com/Hm0z8dK8Tn
Guscott’s natural talent was obvious to anyone who had seen him play and he had the self-confidence to produce that on the highest stage.
World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Guscott scored in the second test and appeared in the first of his three tours, but is perhaps best remembered by Lions fans for his series-clinching drop goal in South Africa eight years later.
Derek Quinnell (1971)
To warrant a place on the Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971 took some doing given the quality of players around at the time, but Quinnell’s inclusion was even more remarkable in that he had yet to be capped by Wales.
A veteran of three Lions tours, Quinnell had forged a reputation as a confrontational and imposing figure for Llanelli when he was called up by Carwyn James.
Quinnell had a dream test debut for the Lions – taking his place at blindside flanker in the 13-3 victory in Wellington, that preceded the draw which secured the series.
Brynmor Williams (1977)
Scrum-half Williams had the misfortune of being around when Gareth Edwards and Terry Holmes ruled the roost in the number nine jersey for Wales. But his speed off the mark made him impossible to overlook forever and he won just as many caps in one red jersey as the other (three apiece).
His international debut was not for Wales but for the Lions in a 16-12 defeat to the All Blacks in Wellington in 1977. Williams sufficiently impressed to start the win in Christchurch and it was his break which set up Willie Duggan’s try in the third test, Unfortunately, he suffered a tour-ending injury early in the second half and missed out on the series finale.
Tony O’Reilly (1955)
Winger Tony O’Reilly holds the distinction of scoring the most tries ever by a British and Irish Lion and a Barbarian. O’Reilly’s status as a Lions legend was already assured in his late teens having impressed with 16 tries in as many matches while on the 1955 tour to South Africa, during which he turned 19. At that stage he had only played four tests for Ireland.
On the 1959 Lions tour to New Zealand and Australia, O’Reilly amassed a staggering 22 tries from 24 appearances. He scored his sixth test try for the Lions, still a record, in his 10th and final appearance against the All Blacks in Auckland.