LIONS: Against the odds, the roar goes on

The entire squad gets on the plane

So the Lions are back in New Zealand…

…and tomorrow marks the opening match of the tour: the one time every four years I’m happy to get up early on a Saturday morning. But as Sam Warburton received the traditional Maori greeting at Auckland airport earlier this week, a thought occurred: how lucky we are to still have the Lions in 2017.

Their anachronistic character hasn’t been lost on the press in the build-up to the opening match. The amateur ethos that sits behind the idea of ‘four nations becoming one’ to tour far-away lands has not gone unnoticed by the likes of BBC Sport this week. And it is true that, for the uninitiated, the idea of professional rugby players putting aside their patriotism for a bigger cause (and easily forgetting the last four years’ rivalry, vitriol and punch-ups) does sound a little quaint…if not plain silly.

But of the many accusations of ‘irrelevance’ leveled at the Lions since the dawn of professionalism in 1995, the one about ‘concept’ was not what came to my mind. The Lions have had to justify their raison d’etre on more than one occasion in the modern era, but surely the loudest calls for their demise came 12 years ago following the last tour to New Zealand. A tour which will go down as one of the most calamitous sporting endeavors in history both on and off the field. Not only did the team (deservedly) get a pasting in matches (thanks to an apparent lack of strategy), the off-field ‘brand’ sustained major damage because of the terrible decisions (and there were many of them) made by management: decisions characterised by aloofness, arrogance and a value-set at odds with the tradition of the Lions itself. Anyone remember the ‘Power of Four’ anthem? Geesh. Following 2005, we wondered whether there was any way back for this most iconic of teams.

Is that being too dramatic? I’d argue not. Remember that the ‘blackwash’ suffered by Clive Woodward’s 2005 class followed the fractious 2001 tour led by Graham Henry. Although that edition had its successes, it will be remembered as much for the quarrels of Dawson and Healey (and a fed-up midweek team) as it will do those tries by Robinson and O’Driscoll. That’s both the wonder and torment of the British and Irish Lions: a successful tour can be basked in for four whole years but lose a tour (especially in the modern era) and questions soon follow. Lose two and the obituary is half-written. The reason, to my mind, why 2005 was particularly poisonous was that it purposefully ditched the best parts of rugby’s ethos (forged from its amateur beginnings) in favour of cold, distant professionalism. “We do what we have to win, regardless of whether people like it/us or not”. In short, they pissed everyone off: fans from both sides, the players themselves, potential sponsors etc. etc.

The good news is that, fast forward to 2017, and ‘The British and Irish Lions’ are now as strong as ever…both in terms of the interest it generates and its commercial value. This is thanks, in no small part, to Ian McGeechan – the winning coach of 1997 who returned to South Africa with that year’s squad to win hearts, minds and matches. Though the Lions came up just short on that occassion, a lot of the damage sustained on previous tours was repaired and, in passing over the torch to Warren Gatland (a man who seems to ‘get’ the Lions), success followed in 2013.

And thank god that the Lions did come back from the brink, because now we get to look forward to what is, undoubtedly, the hardest tour a rugby side has ever faced: three test matches against the back-to-back Rugby World Cup holders, preceded by a ridiculous build-up of games against the country’s Super Rugby outfits: all of them a cut above anything else in that competition. To call it a challenge is like calling Courtney Lawes ‘a bit tall’. But this is why the Lions continue to thrive. Fans buy in to that challenge. The odds are always stacked against this team: very little preparation, four different nationalities to mould, a squad of excellent players to carefully manage into Test and non-Test sides, all matches played on unfamiliar grounds, a hostile press both abroad and back home…they should never win given all of this. But the message of the Lions continues to roar out: any challenge can be overcome if we work together. It is the distillation of rugby’s great message: putting the team before yourself. That’s the challenge for those opponents-come-teammates, and a management team that spans three nations. The sheer novelty, daftness and experimental nature of it all makes it a mouthwatering prospect.

So whether you’re English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, enjoy the challenge and enjoy the next few weeks. Come on the Lions!

Epilogue

I could end this particular blog post there, but there’s a new threat to the Lions that I’ve yet to mention.

The Lions travel to New Zealand looking to do two things: win (obviously) and to repair their image in the eyes of the Kiwi public following 2005. On that latter point, things look on course following the words and actions of the squad so far. Even if another ‘blackwash’ occurs, you suspect that the brand of the Lions is now strong enough (and the tour is being approached in such a way) that questions about their purpose have been staved off for now.

But there is new threat hammering away at the Lions and, to my mind, seeking to undermine it. It comes in the form of Premiership Rugby Limited (the umbrella body that represents the clubs of England’s Aviva Premiership). They have called for a reduction in the number of games on tour from 10 to 8 and, as things stand, they look like they will get their request. Calls to do so are linked to the idea of ‘creating space’ in the new global calendar which is due to commence in 2020. My problem with this arrangement is it gives us less of something that we want. The 1997 tour had 13 matches but 10 games were played in 2001, 2009 and 2013, i.e. the format has been around for a while. Behind a Rugby World Cup, a Lions Tour is the most attractive event that rugby has to offer. Would you want to shorten that experience (which only occurs every four years anyway) for a touted global club competition or more Aviva Rugby? Neither would compare in spectacle to a Lions tour game. I can also see Brian O’Driscoll’s point that such a move would question the viability of future tours. In shortening tours (or decreasing the number of games), will it work anymore? Why fix something that isn’t broken?

“Ah, but it’s the players we have to think about. Their welfare is the biggest priority”. I wholeheartedly agree with this argument but, to be blunt, that’s not the reason why club administrators want Lions tours cut down. They certainly weren’t thinking of player welfare when they requested that the Six Nations be shorted to five weeks. The hypocrisy of it annoys me the most. No, the real reason why they want the union-controlled Lions tour cut is to make space for competitions that make money for the clubs. Fans and players will take a Lions tournament over a club competition any day, but PRL don’t care, even if that means mortally wounding one of rugby’s great traditions. This is the nasty side of professionalism…one which echoes those huge miscalculations of 2005. The worrying part of all this is that the trend is with the clubs: they successfully wrestled control of the Heineken (now Champions) Cup and, in doing so, made the unions (the RFU in particular) wary of upsetting their major stakeholders. Hence why the RFU support the proposed reduction.

But something can be done. Over the next month we, as fans, have the opportunity to show administrators how much the Lions mean to us and, importantly, why they must be preserved and prioritised over other, conflicting interests. How do you do that? Simply by throwing yourself into this coming tournament: buy the jersey, fill the pubs, watch the games, sing and shout your heart out, send the tweets and post the pictures.

Unlike other challenges that the Lions have faced over the years, this one can be overcome by the fans…

So roar.

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