Curious things, major sporting events. From a fan’s point of view in many ways they’re like a firework display. You have the anticipation and excitement of the build-up, a brief explosion of colour, awe, power and beauty, and finally the fade to black, almost as if it never actually happened.
For many watching the recent British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand from afar, it’s highly likely that’s what the whole tour felt like.
For weeks, months and even years we felt anticipation as the tour grew nearer and nearer, we were blown away by the majesty of the spectacle that unfolded across six epic weeks of rugby but now we’re left with, just over a month later, a slightly fading memory as the mind switches to the next event that captures our imagination.
For those, however, who lived and breathed the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour in New Zealand – players, coaches, staff and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent (but it’ll be close), the fans in the stadium – it’s an experience that will never leave them.
Jonathan Joseph, Bath, England and British and Irish Lions centre, made three appearances for the Lions against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, the Highlanders and the Hurricanes, scoring one try.
Joseph scores against the Highlanders in Dunedin.
A stellar season with England wasn’t enough to see Joseph force his way into the test side but the experience of becoming a Lion was still unforgettable.
“It was amazing,” Joseph says, speaking recently on the phone from Thailand while enjoying a well-deserved rest from rugby.
“Playing alongside all those players, training with the majority of them; it was amazing. It was special tour to go on.”
Much was made of the lack of preparation time afforded to Warren Gatland’s squad but despite jetting out to face the best test team in the world with one hand seemingly tied behind their back – not to mention the numerous sponsorship commitments that are part and parcel of every Lions tour – it was a trip not to be missed.
“There was a lot packed into six weeks but it’s something you definitely want to do. You know as a rugby player that’s the highest point of your career probably. I’m very happy to have gone on one and hopefully things go well and I can try and get on the next one.”
Of all the destinations that the Lions tour, New Zealand is undoubtedly the toughest. The warm up matches against the country’s provincial sides are as robust a challenge as a team can face outside a test match, the All Blacks are still by some margin the world’s best test team and even dealing with the New Zealand rugby-mad public can be tough.
“The love for rugby is just ridiculous. All the stick and banter we get alongside with that is really noticeable,” Joseph says.
Despite all that and a ridiculous schedule that threatened to sink the tour before it even began the Lions, of course, historically drew the test series 1-1 after a dramatic final test in Auckland that ended 15-15.
Having had a few weeks to reflect, the magnitude of what they achieved has now sunk in.
“Drawing against the best team in the world is no easy task,” Joseph says. “Six weeks together is not long for a professional team at all in this day and age. Having six weeks together is a massive, massive challenge and I think the boys realise that now.”
As is the nature with any team sport, some will be included but others will miss out. That’s just the way it goes,” he says.
“It’s just one of those things, it’s out of your control. I felt I did what I could and ultimately, it’s going to come down to the coach at the end of the day.
“Jonathan Davies played extremely well in the games he got to play in and I can’t blame the coach for going with him. He did well; he played extremely well in those games.”
That disappointment, however, will serve as motivation for the next series in 2021.
“You’re all part of the squad, you’re all in it together and you help prepare them but obviously it’s not the same as being on the field and actually doing it; that’s just the way it is,” Joseph says.
“If someone told you it was, they’re probably lying. It’s still a great achievement and for those boys who didn’t quite make the test team it’ll drive them on for the season to come and essentially for the next Lions tour to come.”
A season that began in early September and ended in early July was undoubtedly the longest of Joseph’s career.
Ahead of the start of a new rugby season, the England centre and his partner Zoe travelled to Southeast Asia where they enjoyed the best that Thailand could offer.
A stay at Koh Samui’s luxury Samujana Villas allowed Joseph a “much-needed physical and mental break” and allowed him to experience a country that has long been on his list of places to visit.
“I’ve always wanted to visit Thailand and this year I really wanted to do it,” he says. “I spoke to a few people and it all got arranged. I’ve had an absolutely unbelievable trip, everyone here has been so welcoming and where we’ve been staying has been something else.
“The food speaks for itself, I think I’ve put on a few kilograms already! But the people, the people are just so nice, so warm and really make you feel very welcome.”
Joseph also found time to give back to the local community during his time in Thailand, coaching orphaned and disadvantaged children at Barnhem Thai-Swedish Foundation in Phuket.
Photo provided with kind courtesy of Shine PR.
“I was amazed to hear the story of Barnhem, and now that I’m here I can feel the love and care that founders Susanne and Hans, and the team led by Khun Wow, have given to these children. The kids have a real home and family here,” says Joseph.
Such is the life of a professional sports star that all attention must turn from holiday mode and once again to the upcoming season with a return to club side Bath due later this month.
It will also mean re-joining the England national setup for November’s autumn internationals with more than one eye on the rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019.
“More or less I think every team is now building [towards the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019],” he says. “Obviously we have a lot of things to overcome in the meantime but I think the bigger picture is the World Cup. We expect to win every single game until that point but we have to concentrate on the next job at hand.”
Since bombing out of their own World Cup in 2015, England have made huge strides under head coach Eddie Jones, winning his first 17 matches in charge before a disappointing defeat against Ireland in last season’s Six Nations.
That result cost England a second-straight grand slam but is there the feeling is that this generation of England players are building something special?
“Yes. I think even after that loss in Ireland we took a lot of learning out of that as well; [there’s] a lot of things we can get better at. We’re continuously improving, continuously getting better and it’s very exciting being an England player.”
A Lions test place may have eluded Joseph on this occasion but you get the sense that he’ll have plenty more to celebrate as an international rugby player in the coming years.
Should he continue to shine in the England midfield, potential World Cup glory awaits and a starting berth in the test series in South Africa in 2021 is definitely his for the taking.