Trying to conceal his emotions, Phil Vickery recalls sitting down in the team meeting at their Brisbane hotel on the eve of the first test of the 2001 British and Irish Lions Tour of Australia and looking around the room to see that his heroes were crying too.
Willie John McBride had just delivered a rousing team-talk since made famous by the tour’s Life with the Lions Down Under documentary. Reflecting on that moment and receiving his first ever Lions test jersey from the Ireland and Lions great, Vickery says that it still gives him chills.
“The beautiful thing about that night,” Vickery says, “was the realisation that, while I was trying to hide the fact I am crying, you looked around the circle and you could see the likes of Scott Quinnell, Keith Wood, Martin Johnson all with tears in their eyes.
“Genuinely, it still makes me feel emotional now. I’m 10 years retired and, if I think about the moments that I miss the most, it’s those moments. It’s a bit like that final game of the South Africa tour in ’09 – to have an opportunity to wear the Lions jersey for a final time and to do my family and teammates proud – that was a special moment for me.”
Looking ahead to the 2021 British and Irish Lions Tour of South Africa, Vickery wonders what it will be like for the players, likely living in their COVID bubble, and how they might have to prepare themselves for an entirely different tour experience.
“I was thinking recently about what it must be like playing in a game with no crowds,” he goes on. “If I think about what’s important to me, the emotions and moments in matches, it’s all about the fans, the occasion, and the atmosphere.
“If you think about what’s happened in recent times, I don’t think it’s ever been more important for the Lions to come together and show what it stands for – to bring people together and to use sport as an excuse to celebrate being in one another’s company.
“The players have tremendous support now, especially at international level, but this period coming up is going to take a monumental effort – yes, for the players to be prepared physically, but also the mental resilience which is going to be needed.
“I hope the players embrace the challenge. There aren’t many times I wish I was still playing rugby but, when I talk about the British and Irish Lions, I do think to myself I wish I could still do it. I just think ‘I’ll be there, boy. I’ll be there’.”
Looking back, Vickery says there aren’t many occasions either that stand up to the raw emotion he experienced on the 2009 Lions Tour of South Africa. Even after a nightmare defeat in the opening test match in Durban, Vickery says that returning to the squad for the final test in Johannesburg a fortnight later, and finishing his international career with a victory, was very special.
“When you think of the challenges that the country has had and continues to have, South Africa is always a very different tour,” Vickery expands. “There is a huge sense of pride in South Africa and is probably one of the most confrontational and passionate countries to play against.
“As a competitor, when you play the Springboks, you have to match them with every single sinew in your body and soul. Before you think about the pixie dust, you have to roll your sleeves up and take on the beast.”
And that includes the Springbok’s most-famous “Beast” of them all. Tendai Mtawarira, the loosehead prop who earned the nickname for his destructive scrummaging style, made his first impression on the international stage during that tour of 2009.
It’s a tour that brings back mixed emotions for Vickery, who was among the first to feel the force of the “Beast” under the glare of the Lions limelight before returning the favour in the tour’s final test match.
Just as he humbled the Lions, Mtawarira produced a repeat performance a decade later to help the Springboks defeat England in the Rugby World Cup 2019 final in Yokohama and lift the Webb Ellis Trophy in his final game wearing the nation’s famous green jersey.
“What Tendai was, and continues to be, is a complete force of nature,” says Vickery, who formed part of England’s Rugby World Cup-winning front-row. “The lovely thing about him is that, while you can see what he is on the field, you can also see what he is off the field and the way he goes about his business and the charity work that he does. I had the privilege to play against him a few times.
“That day, during the first test, sadly wasn’t my day, but luckily I had the opportunity to play against him again and prove to people that that [opening] test wasn’t going to be my lasting legacy. That is what representing the British and Irish Lions is all about – and will probably be missed this year – all those legacy opportunities, training at the local schools, seeing the kids, and inspiring the next generation.”
What it will be, he reiterates, is an opportunity for absent fans, the famous Sea of Red, to band together at home and to bring those feelings of famous Lions tours flooding back at a time when people have endured separation inflicted by the global pandemic.
“What the Lions is and what it stands for is something we really need right now,” Vickery says, “to bring people together and, when we think about those relationships, laughter, emotion, and having a sense of purpose, the British and Irish Lions, for me, does that better than anyone else.
“It’s just the most phenomenal thing to be involved in and something we should cherish and continue to nurture.”