King of kings: Who has been on the most Lions tours?

To win selection for the Lions as player or coach is the pinnacle of any British and Irish rugby professional’s ambitions, the hallmark of excellence on an international rugby career. And to make two, three or perhaps more tours is an extremely rare achievement, particularly nowadays when visits take place only once every four years.

So step forward Graham Rowntree, Neil Jenkins and Rob Howley who will be making their fifth Lions tours when they board the plane for New Zealand on May 29th. Each toured twice as players and will make their third trips in coaching capacities. These men are the consummate professionals of the professional rugby era.

They were players in South Africa in 1997 when the Lions won the series against the Springboks, and Howley and Jenkins were part of the squad that toured Australia in 2001.

Rowntree was a Lion again as part of Sir Clive Woodward’s cast of thousands in New Zealand in 2005. The trio were assistant coaches in 2009, 2013 and will now reprise their roles as scrum doctor [Rowntree], kicking guru (Jenkins) and backs expert [Howley] in New Zealand.

No-one, however, is likely to match the achievements back in the amateur days of Ireland’s Willie-John McBride and Mike Gibson, the only Lions to make five tours as players.

Willie-John went in 1962, 1966 and 1968, and was a part of the all-greats who beat Colin Meads’s All Blacks in 1971 before reaching the peak of his mountainous career leading the unbeaten side through South Africa in 1974.

Gibson was a tourist five times between 1966 and 1977, going out to South Africa in ’74 as a replacement.

McBride made a sixth Lions tour in an official capacity as manager of the ill-fated 1983 team in New Zealand, while his Ballymena buddy, Syd Millar, had the distinction of making tours as player (1959, 1962 and 1968), coach (1974) and manager (1980).

But the lion king of touring, the man who achieved distinction across the amateur/professional divide, was Sir Ian McGeechan. The great Scot was a player in South Africa with Willie-John’s 1974 invincibles and toured New Zealand under Phil Bennett’s captaincy in 1977.

He then led the successful 1989 team in Australia as head coach, was the lead coach again in 1993 and for the winning series in South Africa in 1997, and toured as a member of Sir Clive Woodward’s enlarged coaching squad in 2005 before returning to South Africa as the head coach of the 2009 expedition.

That’s seven tours in all as a Lions player or coach, a record that will take some beating.

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King of kings: Who has been on the most Lions tours? – RUGBY

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