“The ultimate honour, the ultimate responsibility.”

Perhaps no quote sums up the prestige of being selected for the British and Irish Lions better than the one forwards coach Jim Telfer told his players on their 1997 tour of South Africa, writes Fraser Watson.

But such prestige has seldom been bestowed on rugby players in Pembrokeshire.

Peter Morgan, of Haverfordwest and Llanelli RFC, went on the 1980 tour of South Africa, where under the captaincy of Bill Beaumont, the Lions were beaten in the test series 3-1.

Sadly for Morgan, in the days where replacements were restricted, he returned home without a test match to his name, but still made seven appearances, scoring one try against Griqualand West.

Aside from Morgan, Cardigan-born Brynmor Williams actually made three test match appearances for the Lions on their tour to New Zealand in 1977, while Mike Phillips (2009 and 2013) and Jonathan Davies (2013 and 2017) both have two tours to their name.

All three were involved in Pembrokeshire rugby as juniors - Williams with Cardigan and Davies and Phillips most notably with Whitland, but unlike Morgan, none represented our county or played domestically at senior level.

So whilst I have no doubt more qualified historians than me could point to numerous other players with tenuous local links who embarked on the greatest rugby tour of them all – in reality, the famous red shirt has scarcely been donned by our ‘own’.

However, one notable exception to that trend has become apparent in recent times – an exception which dates back to perhaps the most significant ‘Lions’ trip of them all.

The legacy of the Lions began in 1888, when 22 players boarded the SS Kaikoura at Gravesend to embark on a five month (excluding travel time) tour of New Zealand and Australia.

They did so under the banner of the ‘British Isles’, with branding and media exposure almost non-existent sporting concepts at the time.

Amongst them, was the forgotten ‘Lion’ of Fishguard, William Henry Thomas.

Now, the local community could be forgiven for not being overly familiar with a figure who was born in the town in 1866 – but research into his career in the oval ball game does prompt some surprise that he remains such an unknown quantity in these parts.

Along with his British Isles selection, Thomas represented Llandovery College and Cambridge University, before a senior career at London Welsh and then Llanelli.

But it was his record with his national side that carries the most distinction.

He played for Wales 11 times against Ireland (3), England (3), and Scotland (5), and captained his country on two of those occasions, with his final appearance seeing him lead the side to victory over Ireland at Stradey Park.

History books show him to be his country’s 11th captain, and the first from Llanelli RFC.

But in 1888, vastly unlike present day Lions tours, for Thomas and co there was little in the way of backing and endorsement.

In fact, their historic venture was viewed by many as more of a rebellion than a trip of destiny – and was the first tour of the Southern Hemisphere undertaken by a European rugby team.

And yet over time, perceptions have changed, with the squad largely credited for paving the way for future tours, inadvertently leading to the creation of the unique British and Irish Lions.

Indeed, the official Lions website now recognises the 8-3 win over Otago, on April 28th, 1888, as the tourists’ first official match, and the side’s legacy was honoured by the International Rugby Board in 2013 when the team were inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

But back then, the private venture was not sanctioned by an official body, and was actually organised by three professional English cricketers, James Lillywhite, Alfred Shaw, and Arthur Shrewsbury.

It was clearly far easier to be a dual code international in the 19th century than it is in the modern day.

The side donned basic red, white and blue hooped jerseys and white shorts - and were afforded just one jersey each for the entire duration of their stay.

And the selection process was perhaps a dubious one.

Utility forward Thomas, who also won two sporting Blues whilst at Cambridge University, was one of only four players on the tour to eventually retire having also represented his home nation.

The team was led by England’s Robert Sneddon, but in a chilling reminder to how different things were 129 years ago, he would never return home after drowning on the Hunter River in Australia.

How did the squad react? By simply appointing a new captain and ploughing on regardless.

It may amuse you that Warren Gatland’s side have taken 41 players for a 10 game and seven week tour, when you hear the schedule of their early predecessors.

In 1888, the touring party of 22, that became 21 when the afore-mentioned Sneddon died, played 35 games from April to October – winning 27, drawing six, and losing twice.

None of these games however, formulated a test series or were sanctioned international fixtures.

In addition, before their three-month long trip home, the team also played 19 games of Victorian Rules (now Australian Rules Football). Impressively, the ‘Lions’ won six of these contests, despite no player having any prior experience in the code.

Thomas would return home to complete his Wales career, including those two tests as captain, before settling in Beccles, England, and serving in World War One.

He died in 1921, aged 55.

So why does a man, born and raised in Fishguard seemingly to E.B Thomas of Pembrokeshire, remain so anonymous in the context of local rugby history?

After all, his achievements may be derived from over a century ago, but their significance cannot be understated.

Mercifully, it seems the value of Thomas’ tale has not escaped everyone.

A decade ago, teacher Hedydd Hughes, then working at Ysgol Bro Gwaun, did some research on inspirational local figures as part of a project to encourage youngsters to read.

“I went through the archives at the records office in Haverfordwest and came across William Thomas,” she told Telegraph Sport.

“As a Fishguard girl, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him. I took the story back to the classroom and the boys and girls were really interested.”

Mrs Hughes then oversaw a pupil project about Thomas, and located old photos and articles about his rugby career.

She discovered he was born and raised in Kensington House, Kensington Street, Fishguard – in a home now occupied by Arthur Aylward, well known in the area as a former footballer and landlord of the Ship and Anchor.

“I took my grandson to play football in Goodwick and bumped into Mrs Hughes,” he explained.

“She showed me the photos and told me about the story. I had no idea until then and it’s strange that hardly anyone in Fishguard knows about this.

“But it’s a unique tale. I have a niece at Cambridge University and she is going to see if she can find out more about William studying there.”

Mrs Hughes is currently overseeing another project on Thomas, with articles and pictures currently plastered on the walls of a classroom at her current school of Ysgol Llanychllwydog.

“Again the children have been really into it,” she said.

“There is a lot to learn about how the team in 1888 trained on the ship on the way over, with plenty of rugby balls flying overboard.”

And she perhaps echoed the sentiments of many reading this article when she added: “There are plenty of famous and successful locals who are not spoken of anymore so I think its important people learn about his (William Thomas’) life.”

Indeed Bryan Davies, a committee member at Fishguard and Goodwick RFC who first alerted Telegraph Sport to the story, admitted few in the club had prior knowledge of the tale, but proposals to honour Thomas on the clubhouse wall were now set to be discussed.

“Our club wasn’t formed until the early 20th century so unfortunately William would not have played for us,” he said.

“But still for the town to be able to boast a player on what was technically the first ever Lions tour is a huge thing.”

Indeed it is.

So tomorrow, when many of you sit down at 8.35am to watch the British Lions, now a multi-million pound concept that brings together some of the most supreme athletes on the planet – maybe take a second to remember it hasn’t always been a case of packed stadiums, elite training regimes and global audiences.

And it hasn’t always been about bone crunching test matches, large squads, supporters’ tours and astronomical amounts of merchandise.

And finally, remember that whilst The British and Irish Lions has undoubtedly grown into one of the most iconic sporting concepts of our generation – it all started way back in 1888 when a group of 21 amateurs defied their unions to embark on what would turn out to be an almost year-long low key journey.

So it’s only fitting that local people should know, that Fishguard and Pembrokeshire, or more specifically William Thomas, had a major part to play in that.