BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Lions tours have always had unique challenges

It is easy to imagine the sense of awe that must have gripped the 1888 Lions as they embarked on what was essentially a voyage into the unknown.

Tomorrow the British and Irish Lions break new ground by playing in Hong Kong for the first time and the diversion has drawn its critics for the added clutter it piles onto an already squeezed schedule as Warren Gatland’s squad seeks a first Test series success in 1997.

Then again, it could be worse.

It took 12 hours for the 2013 tour party to reach the Far East from London. They will be subjected to less than another eight hours in Qantas first-class, their every whim catered for by one of their 11 corporate sponsors, before they touch down in Perth and transfer to their five-star hotel in air-conditioned coaches.

Their predecessors and Lions originals endured a 46-day passage from Plymouth to Dunedin in 1888 and had to share the limited space on board the ‘SS Kaikoura’ with 300 stoats and weasels that were being shipped out to combat the exploding population of rabbits in New Zealand.

From there to here has made for one hell of a ride and, though the concept draws sneers from some as an unnatural union, Ireland has always played its part. When Paul O’Connell leads the latest pride out at the Hong Kong Stadium, he will extend a link that stretches back 125 years, to a trained architect from Belfast whose name will hardly ring too many bells.

Arthur George Paul was 23 years old when he set sail on that nine-month tour and, though he played in 27 of the 35 rugby matches — the Lions also contested 19 games of Aussie Rules — and claimed 32 points, there is far more to the man’s story than just his time spent in New Zealand and Australia.

According to the excellent official history of the Lions, written by Clem and George Thomas, Paul was the son of an army officer who later became chief constable on the Isle of Man and would prove to be a sporting all-rounder after his schooling in Douglas, the island’s biggest urban centre.

This was an era when excellence on the field of play was rarely limited to the one past-time and Paul enjoyed a fulfilling career at the crease with Lancashire County Cricket Club. The highlight came in 1895 when he partnered captain Archie McLaren to put in a second-wicket stand of 363 runs against Somerset at Taunton.

The man from Antrim claimed 177 runs that day and his colleague’s 424 marked the first occasion a quadruple century was scored in a first-class innings. Only another nine have been recorded since with Brian Lara’s 501 for Warwickshire against Durham in 2004 the only occasion when the near-mythical fifth was breached.

Paul turned out in goal for Blackburn Rovers too but you would imagine his skills with the bat brought him to the attention of Arthur Shrewsbury and Alfred Shaw, two cricketers whose brainchild it was to send a squad of players off to the colonies to play a series of games against the locals.

Even now, in an era of instant global communication, it is easy to imagine the sense of awe and anticipation that must have gripped Paul and his colleagues as they embarked on what was essentially a voyage into the unknown. Even more remarkable is how much we know about what transpired.

Diaries, letters and newspaper accounts weave a comprehensive account of that period and, though one would think the tourists arrived on foreign shores with the element of surprise as to their abilities and backgrounds, that wasn’t the case.

The Otago Witness newspaper printed a detailed biography on all 21 players prior to their arrival and going so far as to dissect their playing styles. One, AE Stoddart, possessed an ability to weave ‘like a bloomin’ dancing master’, and the portrait of Paul as reprinted in the Thomas’s history is worth repeating.

“A. Paul (Swinton). Full-back. Age 23. Height 6ft, weight 14st 7lb. Born in Belfast. Played several years with the Isle of Man FC but joined Swinton last season. Was a reserve in Lancashire match with Edinburgh this year. Very strong and muscular and a powerful kick. Plays finely at three-quarters and is a brilliant forward. A sure place-kick. Also a capital cricketer.”

That this was a different era was exemplified on the Australian leg of the trip when tour captain Robert Seddon, a Swinton clubmate of Paul’s, drowned in a boating accident. The following day’s game with Newcastle was promptly cancelled to allow for his funeral but the Lions trotted out two days later and beat Queensland 13-6.

Puts any carps about Hong Kong into perspective...

* Email: brendan.brien@examiner.ie / Twitter: @Rackob


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