‘There are times today you are going to have to reach into the very depths of your soul.’
Those were the words Willie John McBride, the most legendary Lion of all, said to the match-day 22 when he presented us with our Test jerseys 12 years ago in South Africa.
I remember it vividly. It was the morning of the first Test, our head coach Ian McGeechan had named the team and Willie John – captain of the 1974 ‘Invincibles’ tour to South Africa – spoke to those selected in the team room of our hotel in Durban.
Jamie Roberts playing for the Lions against South Africa during the 2009 Test series
He told us how the Lions jersey does something to you that no other does. You feel you grow immensely in it.
He was right. When I wore the Lions Test jersey I felt I was representing everyone who played No 12 in the UK and Ireland – from club to professional level.
The biggest worry is you forget to bring the shirt for match-day! After receiving it, it was our responsibly to pack our shirt to go to the ground.
I took mine up to my hotel room and had a moment with it on my own. I couldn’t stop looking at it.
It’s hard to describe the emotions you feel, it’s a culmination of all the hard work you have done, everything your family and friends have been through with you.
To reach the pinnacle is a very rewarding and unique experience.
I messaged my mates and sent pictures of the shirt to the lads.
My shirt for that first Test in 2009 is one of the first things I now see when I walk into my living-room in my house. I stuck two lines of tape down the front so that the match-day squad could sign their names neatly on it, and then had it framed.
Dan Biggar has been the stand-out No 10 in British & Irish rugby and deserves to play
The one from the Loftus Versfeld second Test is with my parents, in my dad’s little office space. I went for a drink with him the night before the first Test in 2009, savouring the moment.
Those picked will receive their special Test jerseys on Friday. It’s a very emotional moment in your career. That burden of responsibility is immense. I loved it, and I’m sure those selected this week will too.
I enjoyed listening to Alun Wyn Jones saying earlier this week that everything he has done in the past four years has geared up to this.
I felt the same. In your professional career, sure you have week-to-week club rugby, campaign-to-campaign international rugby, but you know in the back of your mind if you peak around Lions year you have a chance of going on these tours.
After 2009 the 2013 tour to Australia was in the back of my mind probably every day, rumbling in the back of your mind.
In 2011 with Wales we had the heart-ache of losing the World Cup semi-final, then in 2012 won a Six Nations Grand Slam, then the 2013 title, but the Lions was also driving me.
I love the stories of people’s paths to the Lions, whether it is Wyn Jones going from Llandovery and the Welsh Premiership to the starting shirt here in a few years, Duhan van der Merwe leaving South Africa five years ago and now playing against them, or Stuart Hogg having to go home in 2017 after a freak eye-socket injury when colliding with Conor Murray to now finally becoming a Test Lion.
When I look across the team they are all players who have delivered in the past few seasons when the stakes are at their highest.
One person I am personally delighted for is Dan Biggar. In 2013 he was the only one of our starting XV that beat England 30-3 to win the Six Nations not to make that summer’s Lions tour selected by Warren Gatland.
Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones was right to say the past four years has geared up to this
In 2017 he went to New Zealand, but did not win a Test cap as he was behind Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton.
Here he is now, starting No 10 for the Lions, and he thoroughly deserves it as the stand-out No 10 in British & Irish rugby.
A Lions Test week rattles through quickly. You brace yourself for what’s to come and before you know it the match is upon you.
The night before the game it almost doesn’t matter if you don’t sleep, as you know the adrenaline will take you to another level.
I went for a walk down on the beach front on the morning of the 2009 Durban match with a couple of lads, had a coffee, and then all of a sudden you find yourself having lunch and it’s go time.
My flick-the-switch moment was had a shower, half an hour before the final team meeting. There my mindset would change. Then it was kit on, down to the meeting, earphones in for the bus journey.
I’ve always listened to the same playlist before a match; a random mix of house, rap and Bruce Springsteen.
It ends with two songs – Lucky Man by The Verve, then This is The One by The Stone Roses, which Manchester United run out to at Old Trafford.
Those would take me down Westgate Street in Cardiff for Wales home games, but in 2009 coming into King’s Park in Durban I took my earphones out so I could absorb the sounds, sights and smells.
You realise you might never do this again, so want to take it all in. It was just immense.
One of the most amazing sights of my life was coming out of the tunnel for match, and seeing this wall of red shirts opposite in the ‘Shark Tank’. Absolutely nuts.
It’s such a shame we will not have that this time, but I am hugely excited for all those selected – what an opportunity.
There are only three sets of 80 minutes every four years for us to leave a lasting legacy and to become a team to be remembered through history. Hopefully we see three games for the ages.
As Jim Telfer said in his famous 1997 speech ‘getting selected is the easy part. To win in a Lions Test match is the ultimate.’
Good luck lads.
SIDELINED STARS CAN’T SULK
I feel for the likes of Josh Adams, Taulupe Faletau, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola who are not in the squad.
If you’re not disappointed you’re not human – but they have to find a way of channelling that and supporting the Test team. It’s highly likely they will be involved, as this Test series will be brutal.
In 2013 I was in the Finn Russell position, injured for the first two and worried I would be sent home, but Warren trusted the medics and I came back in the third Test which we won in Sydney.
The players left out will be disappointed but they must find a way to still support the team
I will never forget when I was selected ahead of Brian O’Driscoll to play with Jonathan Davies in that final Australia Test.
He came on the bus, shook my hand, congratulated us, asked if we needed any tips or help after training – but I could see how gutted he was.
The sheer disappointment was in his face and body language, but he did the right thing in the face of it. I felt I had to do to him justice in the Test.
The Lions gives you lessons like that, in not just being a sportsman but a decent human being too.
PLAY THEIR BEST AND THE LIONS WIN
Warren Gatland has a brilliant way of simplifying the complex. The Welsh coaching group I played under with him and Shaun Edwards was all about clarity.
Gats would pull out a shoddy piece of paper out of his pocket, read the team out and then Shaun would often have three or four trigger words for us to focus on, concentrating the messages of the week.
Warren would never over-coach in a big week, all very short and sharp, trying not to add to the soup of information the players have.
Lions coach Warren Gatland likes to keep it simple and allow the players to flourish
Alun Wyn Jones finds great power in keeping it basic too, allowing players to flourish in the system. He is an emotional, but smart guy, who speaks from the heart before a game.
The structure for the game will be simple, but will allow the likes of Anthony Watson, Duhan van der Merwe and Elliot Daly to flourish and show their super-strengths.
If the Lions play their best they will win. They are going to start the game going out to play with pace and power, and will want to score. Then if they are ahead after an hour there are no better tacticians to bring on than Conor Murray and Owen Farrell to control the last third.