There is a phenomenon, usually compounded by social media, that sees usually objective people turn into sycophantic supporters no matter how flawed the object of their desire. They seem unable to concede it is less than perfect. Without wanting to get all grown up about it, look at the people charged with running our country, and the voting hordes who continue to reward them, despite them being repeatedly proven to be suboptimal role models. Some inadequacies are ignored to the point at which they seem not to exist at all.
The British & Irish Lions is such a mythical beast, a legend that transcends its sporting walled garden and permeates beyond the reaches of mere sport. The Lions, as well as being a selection of the best of the best, represents a coming together of nations who historically see each other as spiritual and sporting foes. For a few months every four years, we’re all mates and we all want the boys to do the job. Bone-deep, tribal allegiances are not dissolved as such, more repurposed and redirected towards that fabled old red jersey.
Everywhere we rugby types bowl, the first question from passing dog walkers or city baristas or even Colin, the indefatigable DPD delivery man, is Lions centric. They all love to tell me, and anyone who will listen, how much they love the Lions and how excited they are about the tour.
Then I tend to ruin it by asking said enthusiasts how many of the warm-up games they’ve watched. Their eyes flick away for a second before seeking the pavement. I do not do this to be challenging, or to make anyone feel any less enthused, but I do find it fascinating that not one soul has yet claimed to have seen every game of this tour. Not one. They invariably look a bit ashamed when they admit to this to me, as if they’ve been forced to admit an infidelity that their consciences had chalked off.
Even as I write these words, a frisson of apprehension washes over me because I am literally employed by the odd Lions commercial partner and being anything other than uber-positive would seem foolhardy. However, I like to think that freedom of thought and deed is still worth something and, to that end, that my objectivity remains appealing to potential employers.
We want to see players who don’t know each other become friends, brothers; we want to watch them grow over a demanding schedule of brutal, tense matches in which pride and reputations are at stake. But this doesn’t happen any more.
The hard truth is I have not loved this tour and was nowhere near the edge of my seat until the Lions faced that snarling South Africa A team. While I acknowledge that Covid has wreaked its indiscriminate havoc on the Rainbow Nation and this has had a near-ruinous impact on the tour, I still feel that this demonstrates the need for the format to be put under the most rigorous scrutiny.
For a few tours now there has been loose talk that the Lions could be on the verge of sporting extinction, though I never actually discovered who had said this originally.
The Lions, to my mind, is sitting rock solid in the sporting calendar, but rugby’s global landscape is evolving and it may be time to modernise or risk interest waning to dangerous levels.
Football dominates sport, I know, but think of the Euros and the emotional investment around those games; it gripped a nation. Rugby may possess a lesser pull, but even the most committed among us would concede that warm-up matches against second-rate sides were dull. Until that ‘A’ game, there had been no jeopardy whatsoever to fire our competitive instincts. This is a tour that is squarely about the Test matches, and that is not what a Lions tour of yore is meant to be. We want to see players who don’t know each other become friends, brothers; we want to watch them grow over a demanding schedule of brutal, tense matches in which pride and reputations are at stake. But this doesn’t happen any more.
When we are asked about Lions tours of old, we do not only think of the sport. Results feel vital in the short term, but their importance wanes over time. Certain tours – like 1997 – are famous for their epoch-defining endings, but the best tours are infamous for the fun we know the players had and that is what we want from Lions tours. This tour simply cannot and will not be the sort of tour that we can call a classic. It is already unique in its constraints, but can it demand a place in our hearts? The Tests themselves will doubtless deliver, but that is where it begins and ends. In one sense it seems a Herculean accomplishment to have got this over the line, but it still feels like maybe like we should have waited.
We won, yes, but we also climbed into the local nightlife, danced on bar tops, commandeered VIP areas, sung ourselves hoarse on buses and even swapped clothes with passing women. I was even mistakenly accused of kidnap.
I mean, I went on tours where we won big games – we even beat South Africa on my first England trip – but nobody ever asks about that match; there is magic in winning, but the real magic lies in the human stories behind the scenes, and that is where the questions invariably lead. We won, yes, but we also climbed into the local nightlife, danced on bar tops, commandeered VIP areas, sung ourselves hoarse on buses and even swapped clothes with passing women. I was even mistakenly accused of kidnap – a punchy start to my England career I must admit (and a reason for its brevity, some would say).
We were told expressly to stay in, before whacking on some aftershave and slipping into the night. I was a skint rookie, so senior players happily paid for most of my beer. Our commitment to winning was absolute, but we knew that these were special days and we’d better have a story to tell a decade on. Banter is the world’s worst word, but I really do hope that Call of Duty and driving ranges aren’t all these lads get to see in one of the world’s most captivating countries.
Fast-forward to Australia in four years. Can anyone reasonably expect the Aussies to field five or six savage Super Rugby teams in the build-up to the Test series to really hammer in to and prepare the Lions? Will it be a Lions tour for the ages, one during which we see every player pushed to his limit and given hell before the career-defining days arrive? Right now, it seems unlikely.
To this end, perhaps we ought to consider dropping the provincial games. These games simply do not deliver any longer and as uplifting as it may be to remember that these South African provincial players may count their beatings at the hands of the Lions among the greatest days in their careers, the games were predictable, risk-free affairs, and risk-free doesn’t cut it if we do truly regard the Lions as the pinnacle of rugby selection.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, I’d love to see the French included in Australia. Fly them in and send them out against both the Lions and the Wallabies in the weeks leading up to the first Test in proper, full metal jacket international matches.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, I’d love to see the French included in Australia. Not in Lions selection, of course, but as opposition. Fly them in and send them out against both the Lions and the Wallabies in the weeks leading up to the first Test in proper, full metal jacket international matches. All of the traditions we hold dear begin with someone changing the way things were done, with someone trying something novel and visionary. The point is that people would watch it. I’d bet a good sum that Colin the DPD driver would not want to miss the Lions playing France in Sydney, and we’ve just seen how good a French tour to Australia can be. We would still watch the Lions develop, as well as the Wallabies, but this might even add more anticipation ahead of the first Test as it would be the first time Lions and Green and Gold’s had met in anger, creating infinite unknowns and points of conversation over which the fans could speculate over a pint, a curry or a Zoom.
Bring in a fully loaded Tonga, Fiji and Samoa too, as proper opposition. One match versus each of the South Sea Islands and one or two against France, and you’d be talking about a globally-engaging rugby happening. Every existing Lions fan would be tuning in religiously, as well as new disciples. Think of the audiences from France and from those islands who enrich our game with such brilliance, and the Lions could become more universally and commercially appealing than ever. Of course, this is a massive departure from what we know and is therefore highly unlikely to ever come about, but I do believe that the Lions – even the Lions – needs a spruce-up.
Nothing lasts forever but, as a rugby lover, I want the Lions to last as long as possible. I recognise all traditions start somewhere. But they all end somewhere too.
More columns from David Flatman
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