The day you are named a Lion makes every day that came before it worthwhile
Yesterday brought back memories from four years ago when I got the shock of my life
Alan Quinlan being announced as a member of the Lions squad in 2009. He had been so far off the radar when players were being photographed in team gear during the season that his head had to be superimposed on Martyn Williams’s body when he was selected. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
I woke up yesterday morning with the strangest feeling. It was neither good or bad, just strange. I was feeling nervous in a way but not for any good reason. For some reason, I was thinking about the players who were waiting on their name to be called out for the Lions squad and feeling some of the nerves that they must have been feeling. That probably sounds a bit silly. As I say, it was a strange feeling.
Mixed into it obviously was the fact that the equivalent day four years ago was one of the best days of my life. Regardless of how it turned out in the end and the mess I ultimately made of it, the day my name was announced as being part of the Lions squad to tour South Africa is still very special when I think back on it. Even for the guys who would have felt fairly sure they were going to make Warren Gatland’s squad, yesterday will still be a day they remember for years to come.
For me, the whole thing was a massive shock. People always assume you know these things in advance but I genuinely hadn’t the slightest inkling. Not a whiff, not a clue. Munster had two training sessions that day and the announcement came in between them. I had so little thought that my name might come up that I went home and went for a nap. Around the time the names were due to be announced, I flicked on the TV in the bedroom to see how many of the lads had made it. I wasn’t for a second imagining there was a chance that I would.
Here’s how unlikely it was. During that year’s Six Nations, the Lions PR guys visited each of the international squads and got players to pose in the jersey for the day of the announcements. You saw them all yesterday, turning and walking towards the camera with the red jersey on and the sponsor’s name across their chests. They got over 100 players from four countries to do that just so they could cover all bases. But I was so far out of contention that they didn’t even ask me.
I had been in the extended Ireland squad for that Six Nations but I hadn’t played a minute. I was in Murrayfield the day Ian McGeechan came to watch us play Scotland but I was the 23rd man and I was sitting in the stand in my Ireland blazer when he was few rows behind me. I remember looking up at him that day and thinking how great it would be to be out on the field giving him something to think about. But once the Six Nations was over, the Lions didn’t enter my thinking at all.
When my name was read out, I was gobsmacked. I was in the house on my own with the TV on and I just had this unbelievable rush of joy. I got really emotional and although I tried to keep it together, I cried a few tears. They had a picture of me in a Lions jersey and everything – I later found out that they stuck my head on the shoulders of Martyn Williams.
I had to gather myself and go back to training. Most of the boys were there before me and I had to walk the length of the pitch to join the group. Obviously they all knew but I wasn’t sure how to play it. They obviously had it pre-planned – they all just ignored me and continued chatting amongst themselves.
There was no ‘Well done, Quinny’ , no handshakes or anything. I knew well what they were at so I played along and pretended nothing was happening, trying to keep a straight face. Eventually, they cracked and they all surrounded me and congratulated me. They threw me up on their shoulders and chaired me around the pitch. I was on cloud nine.
Obviously, that won’t have been the way for all of the players who made it into yesterday’s squad. There were no real wild cards this time around and most people were able to predict a good 90 per cent of the names with a fair amount of certainty. But even the guys who expected to go would have been watching and waiting for their name to come up and would have seen it as one of the great moments of their career when they saw it.
Because that’s what it is. A Lions place feels like the top of the tree, it’s as high as you can go. Your whole life as a rugby player, you are trying to make this team or that team. You are constantly reaching upwards and doing all you can to make the next step up. When you get picked for the Lions, it’s the culmination of everything you’ve ever done in the game. All the good days and bad days lead to it.
Even for the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, yesterday would have felt like a personal triumph. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going on your fourth tour or your first, it’s vindication for everything you’ve put into your professional life. For someone like Tommy Bowe who has missed so much rugby through injury, this will feel amazing. It will tell him that all that unseen work he did through the winter when it felt like nobody cared what he did was worth it.
As for the squad itself, you’d have to have sympathy for Rory Best and Simon Zebo who are unlucky not to make it. But the one thing that really jumps out is the fact that there are only two outhalves named, with no back-up for Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell. This obviously leaves the Lions susceptible to an injury crisis in a hugely important position and given that Johnny is only coming back after two months out with his hamstring, it is a serious risk to take.
But even if neither player picks up a knock over the course of the tour, the mental toll on them will be huge. Bringing only two outhalves means that neither of them can take so much as a training session off. Those two guys will have their boots on every day of the tour and will have to get themselves into the right mental space for every game.
Some of the test team will be able to sit on the stand and have a bit of craic amongst themselves for the midweek games but when they’re doing that, Sexton and Farrell will literally have their game faces on. That’s a lot to ask of two guys on their first Lions tour.
But look, it’s a good complaint for them to have. I’d have given anything to have that kind of problem four years ago. I will be in Australia doing some corporate work with the Trevor Brennan tour this time around and I’m going to try very hard to face my demons over what happened. I’ve moved on and I’ve dealt with it as best I can but I don’t think I’ll really ever get over missing that tour.
I had the chance to but I messed it up in the end. It’s still the biggest regret of my career.