A Lions test match reaches an intensity unlike any other. There may be a lot of Sky Sports hyperbole around the tours but the level of play in the test series reaches a height not even seen at the World Cup. The 2005 tour aside, the Lions have had some unmistakably excellent clashes with southern hemisphere opposition in the professional era. Since 1997 the tours have mushroomed into a global phenomenon so we decided to rank the 5 best test matches of the professional era.
5. 1997 tour, first test: Lions 25-16 South Africa
Of all the places to have the first tour of the professional era, South Africa probably would have been bottom of the list. They were the reigning world champions and had beefed their pack up even more since their triumph two years earlier. The Lions on the other hand, came into the game with a number of untested players. Matt Dawson, Paul Wallace and Jeremy Davidson were all relatively untested players at the top-level before being thrust into action.
But all of Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer's selection decisions paid off and it was Dawson who sealed the game with this audacious try to put the Lions well on their way to a famous victory.
4. 2001 tour, third test: Australia 29-23 Lions
The 2001 tour is one that really sticks in the craw of Lions supporters. After blitzing the Aussies in the first test, the Lions squandered a golden chance to kill the series off in the second test. That brought up a mouth watering decider in Sydney. Despite dominating proceedings the Lions sloppy execution cost them in the end. The highlights below show that on a couple of occasions the Lions should have come away with 7 points and instead left with 3 or 0. For all the flak Graham Henry took afterwards, he was very close to adding a test series win to his resume.
3. 1997 tour, third test: Lions 18-15 South Africa
This is a game the Lions really had no business winning. They were outscored 3-0 on the try count but luckily for them the game came down to the boot. They had the unflappable Neil Jenkins while the South African's had three different kickers miss three conversions. The Lions grinded the game out in the pack but one rallying point was Scott Gibbs bulldozing over South African talisman Os Du Randt.
And unlike four years later, when the game was in the melting pot the Lions showed cool heads to win. The pack and strike runners got them in position for Jerry Guscott to drop a goal.
That tour remains the Lions last series win. Until this year maybe?
2. 2001 tour, first test: Lions 29-13 Australia
It was impossible to watch this test and not think that the Lions were certain to win the series. They team gelled perfectly and the centre partnership of O'Driscoll and Rob Henderson ran absolute riot. Every member of the pack carried like Sean O'Brien and the Aussies were destroyed. The opening try set the tone. Robinson standing up Chris Latham remains an iconic Lions moment.
And of course there was the small matter of Ireland's greatest ever player scoring his greatest ever try.
But just watch these highlights to remember how truly great the Lions were in that test in Brisbane.
1. 2009 tour, second test: South Africa 28-25 Lions
The most ferocious game of rugby I've ever seen. Every cliché about South African power and Lions courage were applicable to this game. The Lions lost their two starting props and two starting centres because all four put their bodies on the line for every second of the game. Unfortunately they also happened to be the Lions key men and when the went off the South African's got the upper hand. This hit from O'Driscoll sums up the physicality of this game.
The highlight video brings back all the memories: the gouge, Jones' great offload for the Lions try, the great running angles from the South African's wingers, the power of Jaque Fourie, the huge hits and O'Gara's tackle. It was some game.