DAVID WALLACE WAS in Copenhagen Airport when he found out he was going to be a Lion for the first time.

This is in 2001, a year on from his Ireland debut at the age of 23. The Limerick man had been flying it in the Six Nations, his prospects of touring Australia with the Lions looking good, until the Foot and Mouth outbreak brought it all to a sudden halt.

Wallace was a late call-up to the 2001 Lions tour. Source: INPHO

Ireland trained away as they waited for news of rescheduling and Wallace had the misfortune to suffer a knee injury. He hadn’t played much rugby by the time the Lions announced their squad, meaning he got a call from tour manager Donal Lenihan to tell him he was only on the standby list.

Off he went to Ayia Napa on holiday with some Munster team-mates – he insists they did a few jogs in between letting their hair down – and then a few weeks later, he was back into Ireland pre-season camp for what was their first-ever trip to the cryotherapy camp in Spala, Poland.

“We had flown out and were getting a transfer in Copenhagen,” says Wallace, who is taking part in today’s ‘The Longest Row,’ a 24-hour world record rowing attempt in aid of the IRFU Charitable Trust and Friends of Cross Cancer Research.

“Out of the blue, I got a call from ROG, who was out on the Lions tour and was suffering after the whole Duncan McRea incident.

“‘You’re coming out, are ya,’ says ROG to me. ‘I was speaking to a cameraman and he said you’re coming out.’

“I just told him I hadn’t heard anything and suddenly he just hangs up, I’m listening to the beeping on the other end of the line. I presume he had gone off to clarify it somewhere!”

The ever-observant Peter Stringer was nearby in duty-free and had spotted a confused Wallace taking the call.

“He comes over and asks me what it was about,” says Wallave. “I told him ROG had called but it was nothing. Of course, two minutes later Frankie Sheahan had me up on his shoulders with the rest of them screaming, ‘He’s going on the tour!’ It was embarrassing and I just thought it was all a mistake.”

Ireland manager Brian O’Brien resolved the confusion a few minutes later, though, pulling Wallace aside to inform him that he was indeed going to be a Lion – called up as an injury replacement for Lawrence Dallaglio. 

Wallace with his fellow Irish Lions in 2001. Source: INPHO

Wallace rerouted to Heathrow, had an eight-hour wait there, caught a flight to Singapore, on to Sydney, a transfer to Coff’s Harbour, and then played in the Lions’ victory over New South Wales Country literally hours after landing in the country.

“It was bizarre and surreal but you’re just living off adrenaline at that point.”

The powerful back row played the closing 25 minutes of the game off the bench as he emulated older brothers Richard [1993] and Paul [1997] in playing for the Lions. Not that Wallace had had time to realise what had just happened.

“After the match, I was put up for the press conference and one of the reporters asked about us being the first three brothers to play for the Lions,” he recalls with a laugh.

“I had no notion of it, not a clue, and it was a great way to find out – totally out of the blue and I had already played. It was like a dream.”

The Lions lost the first Test four days later and Wallace nearly got a cap in the second after Scott Quinnell had pulled up injured the day before the game in Melbourne. Wallace did the warm-up with the team but the Welshman proved his fitness in the end.

Still, he loved the experience of getting a chance to become a Lion in Australia. He had to wait eight years for his next taste of it, having missed out on the 2005 tour due to an injury-ruined season.

By the time the 2009 tour – the last time the Lions toured South Africa –  rolled around, Wallace was a two-time Heineken Cup victor and a Grand Slam winner. He was always going to be a key man.

It’s still remembered as one of the great Test series and a brilliant Lions tour but the Springboks’ victory means Wallace looks back with one strong feeling.

Wallace was a key man in 2009 in South Africa. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It’s disappointment, ultimately. It was brilliant making the tour and making the Test team, getting three Test caps. It was a really enjoyable tour, everyone got on well and it ticked all those boxes but ultimately you didn’t win the Test series and came so close.

“Unfortunately, that will always stick with you and I look back with a disappointed feeling. That’s probably not right but that’s what it is, especially when your brother [Paul] has that over you – winning a Test series in South Africa.

“You wanted to emulate them, they blazed the trail. All my career it was something I wanted to do and it seems more achievable because your brothers are doing it. This was almost the last hurdle of something where you could have won a Test series but it wasn’t to be.”

Wallace was superb on tour, bringing his remarkably powerful ball-carrying, clever support play, breakdown aggression and defensive nous to the party. But he was actually struggling with injury.

Severe pain in his back plagued him and was only resolved a full 18 months after the tour. He could ignore the injury for games but training and rest days were tough. Not that any of us knew it watching him leather into South Africans.

That Test series is still remembered as some of the most brutally physical rugby ever played.

“You love playing in those games,” says Wallace. “The South Africans are big dudes and physical by nature but it was almost a factor of two to what I had experienced playing them before, certainly in an Irish jersey.

“In the first Test, we were probably caught a bit unaware early in the game. We probably weren’t up to that level of physicality and quite prepared for just how up they were for it. Ireland would have beaten them a few times but they were so up for that series.

“It’s something the squad this year have to be aware of – you may have played against the Springboks before but it’s different when you’re playing against them in a Lions shirt.”

2009 was ultimately a disappointment. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With Ian McGeechan in charge, there was a strong focus on the Lions enjoying the tour experience. Wallace laughs as he recalls being caught out after he was told he wouldn’t be playing on the first weekend of the tour. He chanced a night out on the Wednesday.

“Of course someone got injured and I had to play a few days later! I wasn’t in great shape, so it was a lesson learned.”

The Lions weren’t out every night and always had their focus on Test success but Wallace says the coaches were relaxed about players having a few drinks and enjoying each other’s company. That off-pitch harmony was different to his first experience in 2001.

“It wasn’t turmoil in 2001 but it was a bit disjointed. There was stuff going on with the press and Austin Healey. Matt Dawson had come out in the press too. The morning I arrived, one of the liaison officers had passed away after a heart attack.

“There was a strange atmosphere in the team meeting, you could actually hear players moaning and giving out. I was just thinking, ‘You are here playing for the Lions, why would you be giving out?’

“But look, you get that when there are players used to being top of the tree with their own countries and suddenly they’re not, it’s hard to take.”

The camaraderie in 2009 was very enjoyable but Wallace comes back again to the Test series defeat as what sticks with him.

“Regardless of how positive it was, when you don’t win the Test series, it leaves a sour taste.”

The 44-year-old is heading into a different kind of battle today along with a host of former rugby players including his brother Paul, Malcolm O’Kelly, Michael Swift, Liam Toland, and Nigel Osborne. 

In 2019, many of the same rowers broke the 100km Indoor Rowing world record for over 40s.

The 20-strong group are taking on ‘The Longest Row‘ in which they will attempt to break the record for rowing over the course of 24 hours, starting at 10am this morning, with all funds raised going to Friends of Cross Cancer Research and the IRFU Charitable Trust, who support seriously injured rugby players.

Wallace’s contribution involves four different three-hour stints on the rowing machine over the course of the 24 hours and he reports that his body – including the knee injury that forced him to retire – is in ok condition before they get going.

“The third shift will be the hardest, 3 o’clock in the morning will be tough, but then you’re on the home straight.

“And in fairness, I’ve been in worse states at 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning!”

His brother, Paul, has done “trojan work” organising cycling events in aid of Friends of Cross Cancer Research over the last few years, while David and the rest of today’s group are delighted to be fundraising for the IRFU Charitable Trust too.

“It’s a very important charity for those seriously injured players and it’s great to be able to do something like this to help out.

“It’s just good to help people, especially now when raising funds for charities has been so problematic. The last 15 months have put a big hole in charities’ operations.”

To donate to The Longest Row in aid of the IRFU Charitable Trust and Friends of Cross Cancer Research, click here.