The red jersey is now iconic – but it’s not the colour the tourists have always worn

History of the British & Irish Lions Shirt

Whenever the British & Irish Lions run onto the field, they have a familiar look to them. Think Sam Warburton, Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Martin Johnson, and the image will be of a captain coming out of the tunnel wearing a red shirt, white shorts, and blue and green socks.

Sponsors come and go on the front of the jersey but the basic kit has remained pretty constant in the modern game, although the replica prices get more eye-watering by the year.

Since 1950 the match-day kit has followed the modern template, barring the inevitable changes from baggy shirts and shorts to hi-tech, skin-tight textiles that came into the sport in the early 2000s. Collars have come, gone and come back again but the gear is pretty familiar.

What some of a certain vintage would call proper rugby shirts ceased to exist in Lions terms from the 1990s and heavy cotton jerseys have gone the way of the dodo. The 2021 British & Irish Lions Pro jersey is made from 100% recycled polyester but it is still red.

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Has the British & Irish Lions shirt always been red?

It has not always been like this and the sea of red in the crowd at Lions matches could have been a sea of blue, a sea of red and white, or a sea of blue, white and red.

The shirts the first touring captains, Bob Seddon and Andrew Stoddart, wore were very different to those paraded by Johnson & Co.

In 1888 on the first tour, organised by Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury, the unofficial tourists played under the banner of the British Isles and wore red, white and blue striped shirts, white shorts and blue socks. That kit must have been hardy as they battled their way around Australia and New Zealand playing 35 games of union and 19 of Aussie Rules.

British & Irish Lions Shirt

Gavin Hastings in the red, collared shirt of the 1993 Lions (Getty Images)

In 1891, the now-sanctioned tourists, had red and white striped shirts and blue shorts for their trip to South Africa but by the time of the 1899 visit to Australia, with all four home countries represented, it was back to the red, white and blue shirts with blue shorts and blue and white socks. Tom McGown and Gerry Doran were Irishmen on that journey but green did not make it onto the kit until 1950.

In 1908 in Australia and New Zealand, Arthur ‘Boxer’ Harding skippered the side wearing a red shirt with a white band on it and blue shorts with red and white socks. The Irish didn’t want anything to do with that tour, nor did the Scots, and it was entirely English and Welshman on the boat Down Under – and still no green.

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In 1910 even the presence of an Irish captain, Tommy Smyth, could not persuade the powers-that-be to put green on the kit. From that tour to South Africa and the-then Rhodesia, to the epic 1938 trip back to South Africa, captained by another Irishman in Sam Walker, the squad sported blue shirts, white shorts, and red and white socks.

The 1938 tourists really were the ‘Last of the Blue Lions’, to steal the title of Steve Lewis’s book about the odyssey, although the Lions name was not used at the time.

British & Irish Lions Shirt

2005 Lions captain Paul O’Connell in the blue and green socks (Getty Images)

With World War Two intervening, there was no tour until 1950 when the Lions were known as the Lions and captain Karl Mullen, the brilliant fly-half Jack Kyle and Tom Clifford were amongst the first Irishman to represent the tourists with green on their kit. It was just on the socks and it has stayed there ever since.

For 2021, flashes of green and blue have been added to the sleeves and waistband of the shirt.

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