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Last of the Blue Lions by Steve Lewis

Release date: 01st January, 2009
Publisher: Sports Books Ltd

List Price: £8.99
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Last of the Blue Lions
By Steve Lewis price: £ 8.99

According to Steve Lewis, author of Last of the Blue Lions, such was the sumptuousness of the banquets and other functions they were called upon to attend, the players who assembled to embark on the 1938 British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa "could have been forgiven for thinking they were about to undertake a marathon of gourmet indulgence."

After being feted by their respective clubs and unions, the Lions squad met in London where they were royally entertained by the South African High Commissioner. Prior to leaving for Southampton for their voyage south, former England captain W.W. Wakefield, by then a Conservative MP, hosted a dinner for them at the Houses of Parliament, following which his guests listened to a debate on foreign policy.

Granted, the Lions squad announced earlier this week will have their fair share of gourmet functions to attend before facing South Africa's world champions in an eagerly-anticipated three-Test series, but one fancies the epicurean delights will not be quite so lavish, nor the post-dinner entertainment as intellectually stimulating as it was seventy-odd years ago.

Since becoming a bona fide professional sport, rugby has developed at breakneck speed. Players are bigger, training methods more intense, while the game's international schedule permits little time for cigars and port - or even adventure - while on tour, even with the Lions.

Although the 1938 Lions lost the series 2-1, they were seriously under-strength and had to make do with just 29 players, two managers and a baggage man provided by their hosts. It's worth pointing out that their squad was depleted because several players simply couldn't afford the luxury of six months' overseas travel - perhaps the starkest contrast with the squad named this week.

As one might expect, there are several other eye-popping contrasts which leap out at the reader throughout this wonderful sporting history book.

For example, midway through the tour, the squad took the train north to play in Rhodesia where two comfortable victories were predicted and a brief spell of R&R was anticipated ahead of the first Test against the Springboks. "The only drawback to the diversion," writes Lewis, "was that it involved the longest train journey the party would undertake."

Having beaten Cape Province 10-3 on Saturday afternoon, the squad boarded the train immediately after the match for a journey of more than 1,000 miles. They left Cape Province at 9.25pm on Saturday night and arrived in Salisbury the following Tuesday before playing (and beating) the Rhodesia side the next day.

Perhaps the most startling contrast is between the respective backgrounds of players of today and their predecessors.

The 'Blue Lions' (so-called because their shirts were blue, not red) were not professionals, so their squad contained Methodist ministers, farmers and teachers. It also had some incredibly brave men, two of whom won the Military Cross and another a DFC; amongst their ranks was Blair Mayne who won an incredible four DSOs, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d'honneur during the Second World War.

As the current squad readies itself for South Africa, sports fans wishing to get a sense of what rugby tours once were, banquets and all, will not find a better read.

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