125 years of the British and Irish Lions, by Clem and Greg Thomas

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The Independent Culture

Brian O'Driscoll's strop last week, when the Ireland centre said he "resented" the Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, for dropping him for the series-winning Third Test against Australia in July, showed just how much playing for the Lions means. Yet, as the 1968 and 1971 tourist and future tour manager Gerald Davies points out in his introduction to this definitive history, as rugby union went officially professional in the 1990s there were those who questioned whether the concept and ethos of the Lions would survive the change.

We know the answer now: as the Australian Rugby Union's chief executive, Bill Pulver, says in the chapter on the recent tour: "By any measure [this tour] has been a phenomenal success… [with] a total of about 390,000 spectators across nine games". Not to mention the many millions glued to television screens.

Perhaps those doubters would have taken a different view if they had read the opening chapter about the original tour, to New Zealand and Australia in 1888, because it was nothing if not professional. The organisers offered players up to £200, the equivalent of over £84,000 today, which compares very favourably with the £50,000 or so this year's Lions earned. Still, the 1888 tourists certainly earned their money, playing 54 matches in 21 weeks and being away from home for 249 days.

Clem Thomas, a noted Lion himself, wrote the first edition of this work in 1996. His son Greg – the 2013 tour's media manager – has added some 80,000 words and greatly expanded the statistical section, but it still bears his father's unmistakable stamp: it's trenchant, authoritative, occasionally controversial, but always fair.

Published in large-format paperback by Mainstream, £14.99