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As the Lions prepare for the first Test, Tony Curtis looks back at a top-10 of legendary tourists

A call-up to the British and Irish Lions remains the pinnacle of the career for any of players from the home unions - the elite from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales combining to form one formidable team.

Over the years, some players have risen to the occasion and immersed themselves in the whole ethos of the tour.

And with the first Test against South Africa kicking off in Durban at 2pm on Saturday, live on Sky Sports 1 and HD1, we look back at some of the legends to have pulled on the famous red jersey.

Tony O'Reilly

Few can match the try-scoring exploits of the Irishman.

Despite being just 19 and with only four caps to his name, O'Reilly was named in the 1955 squad to tour South Africa - and how he made his mark.

In his first game of the tour, he crossed for two tries against a Northern Universities XV - and by the end of the tour he had broken the all-time scoring record for the Lions.

In total, the flying wing raced over for 16 tries in 15 matches - including one in the famed 23-22 first Test victory and another in the final Test defeat.

However the 6ft 2in Dubliner wasn't finished there - and four years on he smashed his own record.

This time touring Australia and New Zealand, O'Reilly scored 22 times in 24 matches, including four in the Test matches.

O'Reilly scored 18 of those tries on the New Zealand leg of the tour to break the previous best set by Ken Jones in 1950.

However it wasn't until the second half of the final match of the tour that O'Reilly crossed for the decisive score. Peter Jackson had crossed in the first half with one of the all-time great tries to pull level but O'Reilly sealed the record - and the Test victory - after the interval.

Dickie Jeeps

Few will have heard of the Northampton pivot before the 1955 Lions trip to South Africa - however by the time he retired no one had played more Tests for the tourists.

Initially selected as the third-choice scrum-half in 1955, the then uncapped Jeeps quickly built up a superb understanding with fly-half Cliff Morgan.

Together the duo terrorised the Boks, none more so than in the first Test when Jeeps released the Welsh wizard to score a crucial try in the 23-22 victory.

His exploits four years later saw the New Zealanders rate him as the most complete footballer of the Lions backs.

Despite playing in nine Tests back-to-back for the Lions, Jeeps was denied the perfect 10 when injury ruled him out the final match with New Zealand.

Jeeps, though, returned to tour South Africa in 1962 - with the scrum-half even captaining the tourists on the final Test.

Andy Irvine

The record books may remember Irvine's goal-kicking exploits, however the Scot was one of the most talented players with the ball in his hands.

Irvine, a three-time tourist, would secure the points-scoring record for club, country, the Lions and the world during a sensational career.

Despite only appearing in the final two Tests of the 1974 tour to South Africa, Irvine weighed in with a record 156 points on the tour.

Then three years later, Irvine rewrote the record books again in New Zealand. Showing his full range of attacking skills, the flying Scot touched down five times against King Country-Waganui.

That came on the back of his record-equalling 25-point haul against Hanan Shield Districts, including a scintillating solo try.

Irvine initially pulled out of the 1980 tour with a hamstring injury - however he found himself called upon as a replacement and ended up playing in three of the Tests against South Africa.

And Irvine brought down the curtain on his Lions career in perfect fashion, scoring a try in the 17-13 fourth Test win over the Boks.

Syd Millar

There are few roles with the Lions that Millar hasn't filled - and given half a chance the former Ireland prop would probably accept the position of tea boy if it meant touring once again.

In all Millar has been involved in nine tours - three times as a player, once a coach, once as manager, once as chairman, once as a selector and twice as a committee member - in an association spanning 42 years.

Despite making his name in the front row, Millar had started his career as a fly-half - and his ball handling skills meant he was a potent force in the loose.

He would go on to play nine Tests for the Lions between 1959 and 1968, appearing 39 times in total and scoring three tries.

And although he would rated the 1959 tour as his most memorable - a 2-0 series win over Australia and a 3-1 loss to New Zealand - it is the 1974 trip to South Africa he will forever be associated with.

As the coach he produced one of the best-prepared sides in the history of the game - with the Lions famously going on to gain the 'Invincibles' tag after winning every game.

Gareth Edwards

A three-time tourists, Edwards remains one of the best players ever to take to the field.

For Wales, Edwards would go on to win a record 53 successive caps, while he made 10 Test appearances during three tours for the Lions.

Injury had hampered his tour to South Africa in 1968, but three years later Edwards - together with Barry John - would terrorise the All Blacks.

Despite being injured in the first Test, Edwards returned to play a pivotal role in the Lions' first series win in New Zealand. And in the third Test, Edwards brilliantly broke down the narrow side to create a try for Gerald Davies.

Edwards returned to South Africa with the Lions in 1974 and went on to prove he was second-to-none in the No.9 shirt.

He dropped a crucial goal in the first Test to break the resistance of the hosts, while his ability to pick the pass ensured that the Lions remained on the front foot.

Ian McGeechan

The current coach is Mr Lions. Two tours of duty as a player have been followed by four spells as head coach and one to manage the midweek team.

Although the Leeds-born Scottish centre played eight Tests for the Lions - including all four on the 1974 Invincibles tour - it is as a coach McGeechan has earned his place in the history books.

He guided the Lions to series wins over Australia and South Africa, while he was controversially denied a hat-trick of wins in New Zealand.

In 1989, the Lions had been heavily beaten 30-12 by the Wallabies, but the side regrouped to record a 2-1 series win.

In New Zealand four years later, the Lions were denied victory in the first Test by a controversial last-minute penalty but they bounced back to record their biggest win over the All Blacks. However the tourists ultimately came up short in the final Test.

Undeterred, McGeechan took up the reins for a third time in 1997 to take on the world champions - and the tour remains one of the most memorable.

The Lions went toe-to-toe with the hosts and stunned them with a 2-1 series win - the selection of Neil Jenkins at full-back proving to be a masterstroke.

McGeechan was invited to manage the mid-week side on the 2005 tour to New Zealand - and although the Test side, under the guidance of Sir Clive Woodward, were brushed aside, the 'Dirt Trackers' remained unbeaten.

Martin Johnson

The current England manager earns his place as a Lions legend as the only man to captain the tourists on two occasions - a feat not even managed by the great Willie John McBride.

Johnson led the Lions to a series victory in 1997 - emulating fellow second row powerhouse McBride - but then tasted defeat in Australia four years later.

The former Leicester lock first toured with the Lions in 1993 when he was called up to the tour as a replacement for Wade Dooley - going on to play in the final two Tests.

As skipper four years later, he was a powerful presence both on and off the pitch - and it was the South African's preoccupancy with Johnson that allowed his second row partner Jeremy Davidson to dominate the lineout.

The Lions looked on course for back-to-back series wins in 2001 in Australia as the tourists dominated the first Test and the opening half of the second Test - only for the wheels to come off.

That tour, though, was fraught with difficulties within the Lions camp - however Johnson emerged with his reputation enhanced for the way he dealt with the problems he faced.

Tom Smith

The selection of Smith is 1997 must have had the giants of the South Africa front-row licking their lips.

However, come the end of the tour, the Boks were left licking their wounds after the diminutive Scot had given them a lesson in the world of scrummaging.

Despite having just three caps to name, Smith proved he was no novice when it came to the dark arts of the front row.

His front row opponent Adrian Garvey may have had more than a stone in weight and six inches in height over him, however Smith used his body positions to disrupt the Boks scrum.

And away from the set-piece, Smith's pace and ball handling set him apart from the opposition.

Having made his name in South Africa, Smith earned his place in the Lions front row four years later in Australia.

Again Smith was the cornerstone of the scrum, playing all three Tests, with the Aussies unable to find a way to negate his prowess.

JPR Williams

The Welsh full-back was never one to take a backward step on the field - and not surprising considering some of the treatment dished out to him.

But Williams, though, was wholehearted to the Lions cause with a willingness to get stuck in to defend his team-mates.

Williams famously tangled with the Springbok Tommy Bedford in a provincial game 1974 - while there is footage of him launching at Moaner van Heerden after a famed "99" call at the 'Battle of Boet Erasmus Stadium'.

That aside, JPR was one of the most gifted backs to represent the Lions - as he took attacking full-back play to a new level.

He was always more of a creator of tries than a natural finisher, and how his team-mates benefitted as he played in eight Tests during the memorable tours of 1971 and 1974.

And it was his drop-goal in the final Test in 1971 that helped ensure that the Lions drew the match to win the series.

Williams was also a rock in defence - unflappable under the high ball and fearless in the tackle.

Willie John McBride

McBride remains the leader of the pride, 35 years on since he last played.

The Ulsterman played 17 Tests on five tours, and returned to manager the tourists in 1983.

McBride was just 21 when he made his Lions debut in the third Test of the 1962 tour to South Africa.

He would go on to suffer a 4-0 whitewash on the 1966 tour New Zealand, while he played all four Tests two years later in South Africa.

However it is in 1971 and 74 that McBride really made his name as a Lion.

The Ulsterman was the pack leader as the Lions avenged memories of their humbling against the All Blacks five years before, while he was handed the captaincy for the 1974 tour to South Africa.

That trip will remain the finest hour for McBride - and the Lions - as they finished the 22-match tour unbeaten.

Knowing that they would face a physical encounter against the Boks, McBride was behind the infamous "99" call that was a "one in, all in" policy of retaliation.

McBride stuck to a motto of "we take no prisoners" and he was rewarded with a tour whitewash.

Comments (8)

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Sean Lonergan says...

The best no 13 ever to play for the lions has to be BOD. Without a doubt he has definetly left his mark on the sport. Do you remember what he did against Australia in 2001? If you watch the highlights from that test serious you will see why i think he is the best 13 ever. BOD IS GOD!!!!

Posted 15:00 17th November 2009

Simon Chadwick says...

Johnny Boy, I agree with your whole team there except at 13. Geech was a good player and a great coach but there is only 1 13 that can be considered in the best XV of the Lions, (or any best XV for that matter!)I am of course talking about the legendary Brian O'Driscoll, a legend in our time! The greatest 13 ever, in the history of the game, EVER!! I would have your team but with BOD at 13 and Geech coaching!! now that's the greatest ever Lions XV

Posted 01:48 24th June 2009

Leo Mane says...

For me without a doubt its got to be Lenny .....

Posted 14:41 19th June 2009

William Black says...

I can name about 30 Lions who deserve to feature in my top 10, and another 30 who come so very very close. Lets just be thankful that we can all enjoy the Lions, long may they continue

Posted 22:54 18th June 2009

Gareth Edwards says...

No Mervyn Davies, JJ, Gerald Davies, Phil Bennett or Barry John? Perhaps it appears Welsh bias but ask any rugby fan the world over and that is who they would name without thinking. Also having just watched Living with the Lions again it reminded me just how good Guscott was. Pure class.

Posted 13:32 18th June 2009

Rob Taylor says...

What about Cliff Morgan - doyen of fly halves

Posted 11:45 18th June 2009

Hugh Maxwell says...

A tough one to call - am largely in agreement with the 10 - thought Jim Telfer may have got the nod though.

Posted 11:20 18th June 2009

Jonny Boy says...

Where's Graham Price, most capped Lions test prop, feared the world over and of course Phil Bennett, the best player ever to wear a Lions No 10 shirt. How about, excluding the current bunch of players, picking the best ever Lions XV. Mine would be 15. JPR 14 Tony O'Rielly, 13. Geech, 12, Mike Gibson, 11, JJ Williams, 10, Phil Bennett, 9, Gareth Edwards, 8, Mervyn Davies, 7, Fergus Slattery, 6, Richard Hill, 5, Martin Johnson, 4, Willie John, 3, Fran Cotton, 2, Keith Wood, 1, Graham Price ........wot do ya reckon ...... C.MON THE LIONS

Posted 10:55 18th June 2009

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