Rugby: Maro Itoje to keep up British & Irish Lions tour mascot tradition

As the youngest member of the Lions squad England's Maro Itoje will be trusted to take care of the Lions mascot on their tour of New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images.
As the youngest member of the Lions squad England's Maro Itoje will be trusted to take care of the Lions mascot on their tour of New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images.

Maro Itoje is gearing up for his first British & Irish Lions tour this summer, with the England star set to be entrusted with one of the team's most iconic traditions.

The 22-year-old second row was one of 41 players named for the summer trip to New Zealand by head coach Warren Gatland on Wednesday, where he will join 24 of his colleagues in making their Lions debuts.

But it is Itoje, rather than any of the other first-timers, who will be charged with looking after treasured soft-toy tour mascot, Billy.

The Saracens player gets the honour due to the fact he is the youngest in the squad, with Anthony Watson his nearest challenger for the position.

But carrying a cuddly toy around for six weeks is not as easy as it sounds, with the penalty for anyone misplacing Billy seeing them at the mercy of their team-mates when it comes to potential forfeits.

The mascot tradition dates back decades, with Scotland's Stuart Hogg the last man entrusted with it, when he had to cart the Lion around Australia in the summer of 2013. That was doubly tough for the full-back, who is also in the 2017 squad, given he also insisted he was allergic to it.

Ireland's Keith Earls took the honour for the 2009 tour of South Africa, while Leigh Halfpenny was recovering from injury, while former Wales scrum-half Dwayne Peel was the youngest touring Lion the last time they visited New Zealand, in 2005.

As the youngest player in the squad, Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg was given the duty of looking after the Lions mascot during the 2013 Lions tour to Australia. Photo / Getty Images.
As the youngest player in the squad, Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg was given the duty of looking after the Lions mascot during the 2013 Lions tour to Australia. Photo / Getty Images.

The Australia tour was Billy's first, although his full name is actually BIL after 'British & Irish Lions'. Previous mascot Leo needed to be replaced because the rigours of the four previous summer tours had taken their toll on his appearance, with a team tasked with tracking down a new version. A previous version of the mascot was called, Simba.

The Lions mascot on the Kings Park sideline during the Lions' clash against South Africa in 2009. Photo / Getty Images.
The Lions mascot on the Kings Park sideline during the Lions' clash against South Africa in 2009. Photo / Getty Images.

A number of potential replacements for Leo are said to have been ruled out due to the Lion simply looking too "cuddly", with the current version eventually found in a toy shop at Geneva Airport.

Itoje won't have sole custody of Billy, though. Far from it. The majority of the Lions touring party have found themselves pictured with the mascot in recent trips, with the captain often clutching it when running out onto the pitch for the start of matches.

British Lions captain Ronnie Dawson holds the Lions mascot as he runs out onto Carisbrook to face the All Blacks during the 1959 Lions tour of New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images.
British Lions captain Ronnie Dawson holds the Lions mascot as he runs out onto Carisbrook to face the All Blacks during the 1959 Lions tour of New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images.

Sam Warburton was named as captain during Wednesday's announcement, but there was no place for England skipper Dylan Hartley who missed out on a Lions tour once again.

Jonathan Joseph is on the plane along with surprise inclusions Ross Moriarty and Jared Payne, despite suggestions he had missed out, with Joe Launchbury a notable exemption despite his stunning form for England in the Six Nations.

- Daily Mail

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