Rugby League Expert & Columnist
Lions tour 2019: Terry O'Connor's Great Britain memories
Last Updated: 04/11/19 11:16pm
Sky Sports rugby league expert Terry O'Connor recalls his memories of touring with Great Britain and what it meant to play for the Lions.
The former prop won 15 caps for the Lions between 1996 and 2002, doing battle with the best Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations had to offer.
O'Connor, who also played internationally for Ireland, is delighted to see Great Britain return to the international stage in 2019 after a 12-year absence and believes it is a move which will benefit all of the Home Nations...
I thought it was sad at the time when Great Britain was put to one side. The majority of efforts internationally were put into the England side and, as someone who represented Ireland, I was quite strongly against it.
If you look at that 2000 World Cup, you had the likes of Keiron Cunningham playing for Wales and those of us playing for Ireland who qualified to represent the Lions, but not England.
To see the team return is great. You do need strong Home Nations to make Great Britain strong, but it gets everybody behind it. I was always told that if the British Lions do well, it helps the whole game do well. Otherwise you're an England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales fan like in rugby union.
Growing up, I can't ever remember running around a park in Widnes saying I wanted to play for England or Ireland, it was always Great Britain. I think the identity of the international game was lost Great Britain-wise and that is the top of the game.
"I say all the time that I’m just a fat kid from Widnes who got paid to play rugby league and to represent the nation and your family, there is nothing better than that"
If you can represent Great Britain, that means you're the best in your position in the Home Nations. Before I made my debut in 1996, I'd been pestered to play for Ireland, but I would never play for Ireland until I'd represented Great Britain.
I always thought if I could come back from a Great Britain tour and be the starting prop then no-one could ever say I'd taken the easy option by playing for Ireland. From my personal point of view, the Lions was absolutely massive.
It was an incredible feeling at the time to receive a call-up. There are always rumours you're there or thereabouts, but then you actually get the letter drop through the door and open it.
Nothing was done on social media and I never received a phone-call saying I was going to be picked for the Lions, it was all by letter and it seemed surreal.
I say all the time that I'm just a fat kid from Widnes who got paid to play rugby league and to represent the nation and your family, there is nothing better than that.
It's also what's gone behind you - the stars you used to watch as a kid. Not only do you not want to let your team-mates down, but you don't want to let the jersey down.
Sometimes it's a load of rubbish when people say you represent the jersey of your team, because lads move around from club to club or job to job and take what they can get. But Great Britain is 100 per cent representing what that jersey and the emblem on your left chest stand for.
Playing against New Zealand, as I did on my first Lions tour, the thing people always talk about is lining up against the Haka and I think it's brilliant. Whether it's Samoa, the Maoris, Tonga or the Kiwis, you stand in a line with your team-mates and just look at it.
I didn't ever find it intimidating, I found it a real privilege to be there on the field with them laying down a challenge. My mindset was you'd eyeball somebody and not take your eyes off them.
It's genuinely a challenge and you've got to respect it, but you've also got to say 'you do what you want because I'm not going to be afraid of you doing that in front of me.'
Playing against New Zealand meant playing against some of the biggest and toughest men I've ever played against, but those Kiwis boys could hit you as well. It was an awesome feeling, and to go Down Under and be a touring Lion was special.
Then when the Australians come around, obviously everyone hates them. Whether you're a cricketer, rugby league or rugby union player, everyone hates them because they're good.
At that level, where there is not a lot of difference between the players, games are won between the ears. It's just phenomenal experience the lads touring now will never forget.
Looking back, we had the best of everything. When I was growing up, if someone had told me I would be getting a police escort I'd have thought I was going to court of prison!
But even when you come down at the hotels we stayed at, there was a guard of honour from the staff after you came out of your team meeting to get on the coach. Then the police took you off and you genuinely felt on top of the world - it doesn't get any better than that.
It's the same when you went in the changing rooms, looked around and saw all of the Lions jerseys on the pegs. Then you looked at where your boots were and they were under your jersey, then you think 'wow, how does that happen?'
Hopefully Great Britain gets headlines in Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well. That's what the team represents and you want the next Brian Carney watching it on television over in Ireland, wanting to be a part of it.