Alun Wyn Jones beaten but unbowed after ‘special tour’

‘If rugby were to lose it, it would be a travesty’ says Welsh veteran as he defends Lions concept

For many in the squad of 40 and party of almost 80, two months together, culminating with six weeks in South African bio-secure bubbles away from families and friends, this taxing, restrictive expedition wasn’t over yet.

While the Irish players would be dropped off in Dublin to isolate at home, the UK-based contingent faced isolation in Jersey, back where it all started.

Spare a thought too for Warren Gatland, alone with his thoughts on the flight back to New Zealand and a fortnight in isolation in an Auckland hotel.

Reflecting on the 2020-21 season as a whole and his final Lions tour as a player, before having a few beers with his teammates, even Alun Wyn Jones couldn’t maintain his normal mask.


“We were able to do this in South Africa which is obviously facing its own struggles with Covid etc so to be out here and be part of this – what has been a special tour probably for the wrong reasons – and then get so close has been a very, very different, but a special tour.

“To fall short probably hurts more than if it was a bigger loss. We fully understand the significance of this tour particularly as it will be 12 years until we are back in South Africa and four years until the next one. That isn’t lost on anyone.”

As a four-time tourist, the Lions have been a huge part of his career, and his life.

“I remember watching Jenks in ’97,” he said of Neil Jenkins. “So to be involved with him in Wales and to be out here with him is really special. Really special.”

Clearing his throat, Jones added: “Probably can’t put it into words, so I’m not going to try. You’ll probably get me going, I’ve already had a bit of stick for being overly emotional and I don’t give a f**k if people think I’m over emotional, that’s what it means to me and I apologise for using language but you know sometimes it’s easier to use the agent of a bit of bad language, so I apologise for that.

“I’m never going to put this jersey on again. I am never going to have this chance again. Credit to South Africa, they won the game and I made a point to the guys, when we came together on the pitch, I said whoever is on the next one - make sure you go as hard as hell because it is a very special privilege to be involved in.”

Jones remains an unapologetic supporters of the Lions concept.

“It’s funny, being involved in 2009, I remember the furore after that – the Lions is this, the Lions is that. Should it exist?

“I think the commercialisation has increased with the scope for what is going on globally at the minute. And in its most basic concept it is something that is very special and it ignites the imagination in children and adults and I think it is something that rugby has hung its hat on for a long, long time.

Big element

“If that were to go, it would be disappointment for the home nations, but also the SANZAR nations that have been part of it as well. It is a big element of rugby that gives a lot of people across the globe something to look forward to. It is up there with all of those International competitions and rugby World Cups.

“If rugby were to lose it, it would be a travesty.”

Gatland echoed all of this when noting that Lions tours are also an incentive for southern hemisphere players to resign with their unions.

“It’s something we need to preserve on the calendar, a very important part of the cycle. We know the Rugby Championship, the Six Nations and they’re yearly. These things are biannual on a four-yearly cycle, which is extraordinary and incredibly unique and special.”

Gatland has never planned too far ahead, and most likely he has completed his cycle now, but either way he again urged that the Lions talk to the clubs and unions about the need for adequate preparation time.

“As the Lions, we get less preparation time than the national teams do when they go on their own tours. Hopefully in the next six months they can iron that out and we can get the schedule for four years’ time tidied up in terms of when finals are on, so that you can get the whole squad together for a couple of weeks before you go on tour. That would make a lot of difference in terms of helping preparation.”

Gatland has presided over two tours which maintained the tradition of midweek games in the weeks of the first and second Tests, and now one without those matches for the first time ever. But even he’s not sure which is preferable.

“It’s a really good question and it’s something we’ve talked about and I don’t know the answer to this,” said Gatland, highlighting the benefits of a week’s uninterrupted preparation but the accompanying dearth of game time for those outside the test ‘23’, while wondering aloud of a larger squad might be the answer albeit that ran the risk of a two-tiered squad.

“I haven’t given you an answer, but it’s really worth debating that as something going forward.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times