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'It was gladiatorial. Even now it gives me shivers' - Shane Horgan on the Lions

The former Ireland and Lions winger re-lives his experiences on the 2005 tour to New Zealand.

Shane Horgan runs into an All Black wall in 2005.
Shane Horgan runs into an All Black wall in 2005.
Image: ©INPHO/Michael Bradley

SHANE HORGAN APPEARED 65 times for Ireland and played in all four Tests of the Lions 2005 tour to New Zealand [and the opener against Argentina]. He retired from the professional game in 2012 and now works as a rugby pundit.

Ahead of the Lions’ Second Test with Australia this morning [11.05am] in Melbourne, Horgan tells about the mystique and majesty of the best the four home nations can muster:

What were your earliest Lions memories?

My father, as a New Zealander, had really strong memories of watching the Lions when he was growing up. In New Zealand, their team and the Lions tours are part of their consciousness. I grew up in a house that always held the Lions in the highest esteem and I knew all about the great teams of the 70s, the great (1974) tour to South Africa and outstanding Irish players like Fergus Slattery and Willie John McBride.

The 1997 tour to South Africa was a huge one. I remember watching the one before, in New Zealand, but the stand-out memories are from South Africa. They weren’t back playing rugby that long and were world champions too. The game was turning professional and players like Scott Gibbs and John Bentley had returned from Rugby League so the exposure was the tour was ramped up.

In four short years I went from watching that tour to having friends and colleagues playing in Australia. It’s amazing how rapidly rugby unfolds.

You were an outside bet for the 2001 Lions squad…

In 2001 I was named in the extended Lions squad – that was a huge deal. I had a very good, first season for Ireland in 2000 but that tour probably came too soon for me. I couldn’t believe Denis (Hickie) wasn’t on it – he was one of the best wingers in the game at the game.

I remember they selected Ronan O’Gara, who was only a kid at the time. That was great. It was also the tour that Brian O’Driscoll took his game to a new level. When the lads came back from Australia, you could see that the tour had left an indelible mark on them. It raised their expectations of themselves, training methods and what they had to do to beat the best.

For me in 2005, touring changed my perspective on what I could do. There’s a lot of talk about the Six Nations being like another level but the Lions is something else again.

Were you confident about getting selected in 2005?

In 2005 I broke my thumb in a game against England in the Six Nations. I had surgery and a comeback game for Leinster against Leicester in the quarter final of the Heineken Cup. I was effectively playing that game one-handed. There was wire in my hand, which had been placed in my thumb just 10 days before, and it was all to prove that I was fit.

Leinster Lions in 2005: Captain Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Byrne, Gordon D’Arcy Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan and Malcolm O’Kelly. (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)

Players are affected by different stuff. People are talking about it, right from the start of the season, and you know that it only comes around every four years. Apart from a few superstars, it is about hitting form at the right time. If those last six months are good then you’re in with a shout but you’re conscious of the fact that you’re constantly on trial.

What were the main issues in New Zealand?

The length of the tour wasn’t an issue. There was a perceived divide between the first and second team but there was movement of players between the two. Perhaps it was an issue for some but, for me, it was a fantastic time and it left a brilliant mark. There was an attempt to be really professional with everything that was done and some of that non-tangible spirit of what the Lions was all about may have been lost.

There’s something almost mystical about the Lions tour and, traditionally, tours aren’t really successful but there’s a way of going about the games and a spirit that is recognised. There’s a connection with the public that you could see in 2009 but that may have been lacking in 2005.

It was a phenomenal New Zealand side and they prepared for that tour impeccably. We were hit early with injuries and losses of big players like Brian O’Driscoll, Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio and Malcolm O’Kelly. One of the major issues was the fact that we carried no real form into that First Test.

At the start you don’t feel comfortable with it until a little bit into the tour. In retrospect, I would have liked to have brought a bit more to it. At the time, I thought I would go on another one four years later but it wasn’t to be. You have to cherish the Lions tours when you’re on them.

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That was the important part. I spoke to Denis beforehand and we made a conscious effort that we weren’t Irishmen on that tour, we were Lions. To be involved in a squad with players you admired was a big thing and we developed lots of new friendships.

What was the highlight of the 2005 tour?

It was how big the Lions tour was in New Zealand. I couldn’t get over the media exposure. Every day you picked up a paper and the Lions were front page; every day, even if nothing big was going on. There was blanket coverage of the tour.

It’s slightly different in Australia as there are more diverse and different sports to grab the attention. The media will be another pillar that you have to break down if you go on tour. That’s brilliant as well because, when you add it all up, you’re up against an entire country.

Horgan fends off Justin Marshall in the Third Test. (©INPHO/Hannah Johnston)

The stand-out moment for me was the First Test with the entire squad in a semi-circle and Brian in the middle. Even now it gives me shivers. Meeting the haka. Visually, the aesthetic, it was amazing. It was gladiatorial. I remember thinking ‘This is crazy. This is something else’.

Ultimately, it didn’t go great. Within two minutes Brian was down, his shoulder gone, and we had lost our captain.

Can the Lions go one step further than the 2001 squad?

The consensus in 2001 was that the Lions team was good enough to win the series but they met a good Australian team with guys like Matt Burke and John Eales playing well. There is a sense of unfinished business there. With every tour that passes by without a win, there is the chance that the public could switch off. It is the job of the this crop of Lions to ensure that they remain relevant.

For the Southern Hemisphere countries it is a tour every 12 years. Some of the best players in the world have missed out on the series. Jonah Lomu, one of the best players of all time, never played against the Lions.

It means a lot to us in the northern hemisphere but whatever it means to us is even higher for them. There’s something magical and mystical about it.

* will be liveblogging all the Lions v Australia Second Test action from 10am today.

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About the author:

Patrick McCarry

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