Here Jacob Whitehead counts down the 18 Lions Tests played in the professional era

Ranking The Greatest Lions Tests Of The Professional Era

There’s not much to look forward to at the moment, but one exception is next summer’s British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. Sky Sports have stoked the fires by replaying classic Lions matches of yesteryear. What better way to fill the hours indoors than watch each and every one of the 18 Lions Tests played in the professional era?

We’ve seen last-minute losses, existence-affirming wins, even a draw – but which is best? And what games are so depressing that you doubt the very concept of the Lions?

Greatest Lions Tests Of The Professional Era

18. 2005, 1st Test, New Zealand 21-3 Lions

Tour captain Brian O’Driscoll experienced the inside of a car-crusher within the first minute, it rained biblically all night and the Lions never looked like they had a hope of winning. The one good moment of rugby was provided by Sitiveni Sivivatu walking on water to finish brilliantly for the All Blacks. I’ve scarcely watched a game with so little joy.

17. 2005, 3rd Test, New Zealand 38-19 Lions

The All Blacks completed an easy clean sweep in this dead rubber, in which Conrad Smith stamped his name on the international stage. Much of my enjoyment came from Donncha O’Callaghan spurning the clearest four-man overlap that a person is ever likely see in their lives. Clive Woodward’s face was that of a man too traumatised to coach again.

16. 1997, 3rd Test, South Africa 35-16 Lions

Anticlimax: The Lions lost the Third Test but still won the series (Getty Images)

This wasn’t an awful game but compared to the intensity of the previous two weeks felt like slight anticlimax. The highlights were, well, Percy Montgomery’s highlights, streaking away to score his first try in a storied career. A shame that possibly the most iconic Lions tour didn’t have a virtuoso ending.

15. 2001, 2nd Test, Australia 35-14 Lions

Quite entertaining, as the Lions sprang out to an 11-3 lead early, before Joe Roff pogoed up to claim one of the great interception tries. One-way traffic after that drops it down the list, although the sea of yellow flags was pleasingly intimidating.

14. 2001, 1st Test, Australia 13-29 Lions

A very one-sided game best known for two brilliant Lions tries. Jason Robinson danced his way into the corner early on – his shimmying hips still haunt the dreams of Chris Latham. Brian O’Driscoll was Superman with a Dublin accent, beating five defenders to score under the posts. Excellent stuff, if entirely free of stress.

13. 2013, 2nd Test, Australia 16-15 Lions

If you’re looking for tension stop right here. Yes, it was low-scoring and cagey, and the rugby wasn’t much to write home about, but the Wallabies rose from the canvas to take what should have been a lopsided series to a decider. Adam Ashley-Cooper had his best moment in the gold jersey, while Leigh Halfpenny missed a late penalty – the one time all tour he wasn’t perfect. Also known as the George North backpack game.

12. 2009, 3rd Test, South Africa 9-28 Lions

Yes, it was an easy win in a dead rubber, I know. But the Lions had lost seven straight Test matches before this game and desperately needed a win to quieten the growing doubt over their future. They gave a sensational performance, with forgotten man Riki Flutey’s flick inside to Shane Williams an inspired/accidental highlight.

11. 2017, 3rd Test, New Zealand 15-15 Lions

Tension and occasion. The third Test didn’t offer much apart from this, save for some sublime running lines from Jordie Barrett. But it was nerve-wracking, dramatic, and historic. And who, except for Kieran Read, doesn’t love a late controversy?

10. 2017, 1st Test, New Zealand 30-15 Lions

A comfortable All Blacks win, but one which scores highly thanks to the quality of rugby played by both sides. Rieko Ioane Billy-Whizzed his way onto the international scene, no front-rower should be able to perform a pick-up like Codie Taylor, while Kieran Read’s offload defied both gravity and the camera man. The Lions scored one of their great tries to give themselves a chance, with Sean O’Brien the lucky man able to flop over the line.

9. 2009, 1st Test, South Africa 26-21 Lions

A tight and physical affair, best known for the South African scrummaging performance. Phil Vickery’s head was pushed so deep into his chest that his neck only resurfaced some time the week after. Had a grandstand finale, but the Lions couldn’t muster a decisive attack despite Mike Phillips’s heroics.

8. 2013, 3rd Test, Australia 16-41 Lions

A classic Lions win in a series decider. Brian O’Driscoll had been controversially dropped for Jonathan Davies, but the latter was excellent in a performance full of verve. Australia fought back from 16-3 down to trail only 19-16 with 30 minutes left, but second-half tries set up by the irrepressible Leigh Halfpenny saw the Lions home.

7. 2005, 2nd Test, New Zealand 48-18 Lions

The Dan Carter show. One of the best individual performances ever seen on a rugby pitch, conducting a symphony clad in black. The Lions played fairly well – but were still devastated by the Crusaders ten. I said the word ‘wow’ 143 times while watching this game.

6. 2001, 3rd Test, Australia 29-23 Lions

Another excellent conclusion to an Australian tour. The first half swung backwards and forwards, with Keith Wood and Daniel Herbert starring for each side. Jonny Wilkinson scored a rare try to put the Lions 20-13 up soon after half-time, but two scores would put the Wallabies ahead and they then blunted the Lions attack with some sensational last-gasp defence.

5. 1997, 2nd Test, South Africa 15-18 Lions

Series Clincher: Guscott knocks over the series winning drop-goal (Getty Images)

South Africa scrapped for their lives and, inspired by Joost van der Westhuizen, played some beautiful rugby. The Lions matched them physically throughout, staying doggedly in the game until a late Jeremy Guscott drop-goal cued wild celebrations, devastated opponents and a hit feature-length documentary.

4. 2017, 2nd Test, New Zealand 21-24 Lions

A tight affair in the rain, in which New Zealand were probably the superior team, despite Sonny Bill Williams’s early red card. But it had a grandstand finish, with the Lions fighting back from nine points down to draw the scores level at 21-21, before a late penalty from the dead-eyed Owen Farrell secured a famous win.

3. 2013, 1st Test, Australia 21-23 Lions

A crazy game. Will Genia solved a maze of Lions defenders to slip in Israel Folau for a try, but George North would soon burst through for an iconic score. Australia were down to a skeleton side after a run of injuries, including an excellent Michael Hooper performance in the centre, but still somehow nearly won, only a Kurtley Beale slip denying them a last-gasp win.

2. 1997, 1st Test, South Africa 16-25 Lions

“This is your Everest boys!” (Plus a few more expletives.) The Lions matched up against a frightening South African pack and were rewarded with Matt Dawson’s momentary transformation into David Copperfield. Gary Teichmann still doesn’t know where that ball is to this day.

1. 2009, 2nd Test, South Africa 28-25 Lions

What a game. Despite the heartbreak for the Lions, it is still talked about in hushed tones as one of the most physical games ever played. It’s better to have lost and loved than never loved at all. Rob Kearney was imperious, Schalk Burger should have been sent off, and I couldn’t bring myself to watch Ronan O’Gara chase the final fateful high ball. The Lions lost, but it’s still the greatest match they ever played in.

Which match do you think is the greatest ever? Let us know via our social media channels or email

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