SYDNEY (Reuters) - The concept of the sporting tour is pretty much unique to rugby and when the British and Irish Lions party lands in New Zealand on Wednesday it will become part of a 129-year-old tradition that taps into the very heart of the game.
For the 41 players in Warren Gatland’s party, selection for one of the quadrennial tours that visit New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in turn is quite simply the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a British or Irish rugby player.
They have a chance to write their names into the history books alongside the likes of Barry John, Willie John McBride and Martin Johnson if they can emulate the triumphant modern era tourists of 1971, 1974, 1989, 1997 and 2013.
For the hosts, the tour retains an equally special lure as 100-cap All Black Mils Muliaina made clear recently when he compared sweeping the 2005 series to winning the World Cup.
The advent of the World Cup in 1987 and professionalism in 1995, as well as a rugby calendar that long ago reached saturation point, have all been viewed as potential death knells for the Lions.
And yet they have not only survived, they have flourished.
“It is the last great rugby tour,” Greg Thomas, co-author with his father, 1955 tourist Clem, of the official history of the Lions and head of media on the last two tours.
”As a kid at school you always went on tour, clubs always went on tours. Nowadays at the elite level, tours are just test matches.
“It is such a great tradition and even in the day of cynical professionalism and big money, the Lions are still relevant as the last bastion of the tour.”
Journalist John Hopkins famously described the Lions tour as a “cross between a medieval crusade and prep school outing” and if today the contribution of former public schoolboys is reduced, the crusading spirit remains intact.
The players of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland - which has always remained a single entity in rugby - spend the four years between tours in fierce opposition, uniting only under the Lions’ banner to storm the bastions of the southern hemisphere.
Such unity has by no means guaranteed success.
The tourists of 1971 and 1974 developed their aura simply because they were such rare examples of success in countries where the southern pupils had long since been teaching lessons to their erstwhile northern masters.
Injuries, sometimes brutal opponents, partial refereeing and the sheer exhaustion of three months or more on the road all took their toll, but the success of the Lions has mostly fairly reflected the balance of power in the game.
The first British and Irish Lions, even if in 1888 they were not known as such, took seven weeks at sea to reach what were then the antipodean British colonies and played 16 matches, as well as 19 Australian Rules games, in Australia and New Zealand.
Organised by three cricketers, the tour was an ad hoc affair and came only 65 years after William Webb Ellis had supposedly invented the game at Rugby School.
More tours followed before the end of the 19th century, bringing the “English” game to the tough migrants toiling on the frontiers of the British Empire.
After the turn of the 20th century the roles were reversed and the few Lions successes were restricted to forays into Argentina as well as Australia, then considered a warm-up before the real business of touring New Zealand.
The All Blacks and the Springboks took a stranglehold on the game that remained intact until the 1955 tour of South Africa, when the Lions scraped a 2-2 test series draw.
The first golden era of the Lions began in 1971 when a rugged pack and a brilliant backline, mostly Welsh, bettered New Zealand 2-1 under the guidance of Carwyn James.
The 1974 tourists, captained by McBride, continued the domination by going unbeaten in South Africa, humiliating the mighty Springboks in their own backyard.
It was not for another 23 years that the Lions would enjoy a series victory in New Zealand or South Africa again, until the 1997 party coached by the inspirational Ian McGeechan and captained by scowling Englishman Johnson beat the then world champion Springboks 2-1.
Heartbreaking losses followed in Australia in 2001 and South Africa in 2009, sandwiching the 3-0 humiliation of Clive Woodward’s 2005 party in New Zealand.
Success returned in 2013 in Australia when Gatland’s “slabs of red meat” ultimately overwhelmed the Wallabies in the third test to clinch a 2-1 series triumph.
The days are long gone when the Lions tramped around small provincial towns to be greeted almost as beings from another planet by locals who would only have otherwise seen glimpses of them on newsreels.
The crowded calendar of the professional game and blanket media coverage have put paid to that, but the ease of international travel in the modern age has added another colourful element - the travelling fan.
An army of between 20,000-40,000 British and Irish rugby enthusiasts now descend upon the host country every four years, turning the city centres of the test venues into a sea of red replica shirts on matchdays.
“The fans love it,” Thomas added. “And as long as the fans love it, the Lions will continue to tour.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford