Courtney Lawes’ declaration proves Lions still the pinnacle for players

Courtney Lawes’ declaration proves Lions still the pinnacle for players
Courtney Lawes in action for the British and Irish Lions in 2017 - Getty Images/Hagen Hopkins

Courtney Lawes has long since established his credentials as a player who was prepared to put his body on the line for the British and Irish Lions. But in declaring that he is prepared to come out of international retirement if required for the tour of Australia in 2025, the former England captain may just have made his most positive contribution yet to the Lions’ cause.

Since the first Lions squad left these shores in 1888 for a 35-match tour of Australia and New Zealand, it has relied on the cult of its legends to maintain its preeminent status – and relevance – in an ever-changing international fixture schedule.

And perhaps more than ever, the Lions ‘brand’ is facing its greatest challenge, to rebuild the mythical status of their tours after supporters were prevented from attending any of the matches of the 2021 tour of South Africa because of the Covid pandemic.

With Australia rugby in a state of disarray in the wake of Eddie Jones’s short-lived and disastrous tenure, and the domestic game Down Under facing serious challenges from rival codes, there are concerns that the 2025 tour may lack the ferocious, against-all-the-odds test that has defined previous tours.

It is also critical that the Lions remains the ultimate accolade for the players, too, at a time when the financial uncertainty of the professional game in recent years is forcing players to consider prioritising financial reward for short careers over national representation.

The 2021 Lions tour to South Africa, being played in front of empty stadiums
The 2021 Lions tour to South Africa was played in front of empty stadiums - AFP/Roger Bosch

Which is why Lawes’s commitment is so important. The 34-year-old represents one the last of the generation of players who were weaned on the cult of the ‘Living with the Lions’ video, the inside story from the 1997 tour of South Africa.

The next generation needs new heroes to look up to. Lawes knows it is long shot for him to even be considered for the next tour, even though Warren Gatland had no doubt about selecting him for the South Africa tour, where he started all three Tests in the back row, despite missing most of the 2020-21 season with injury.

He will be 36 by the time the eight-game tour of Australia gets under way in July 2025, but even though he announced his England retirement after the World Cup, the incentive of ‘completing the set’ of touring all three Lions destinations is enough to keep his ambitions of pulling on the famous red jersey again burn as strongly as when he was first selected for the tour of New Zealand in 2017.

And in doing so, he is sending a message both to his playing peers, and supporters – that the Lions remain the pinnacle – and one worth putting his body on the line for one last time.

British and Irish Lions' Courtney Lawes (L) is tackled by Wellington Hurricanes' Ricky Riccitelli during the rugby union match between the Wellington Hurricanes and British and Irish Lions
Lawes made his Lions debut on the tour to New Zealand in 2017 - Getty Images/Marty Melville

Australia may lack the household names in their current Test side in comparison to the tours of 1989, 2001 and 2013, and concerns remain about the quality of the opposition the Lions will face in the tour games, which makes Lawes’s comments even more impactful. If it still matters to Lawes, he is living up to the commitments made by the Lions legends before him.

The initial soundings about interest in the tour – for what will be the first that supporters will be able to travel to for eight years – appear positive.

Lions Rugby Travel, the official travel agents for the tour, have 11,500 supporters registered as ‘priority access pass holders’, many of whom had been due to travel to South Africa and opted to transfer their payment for the Australia tour.

To attract a new generation of supporter, the Lions have also embraced a social-media strategy, with over 50 per cent of the 2.3 million fans on the official Lions social audience now aged 18-34, while platforms such as TikTok have led to over 23 Lions video plays this year.

That may be so, but one suspects it is Lawes who has provided the Lions with their greatest rallying cry.

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