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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'Why not organise a Lions tour to South America'

Mick Cleary: 'Why not organise a Lions tour to South America'
8 months ago

The wonderfully vibrant, welcoming scenes at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes on Saturday conjured a picture of just what might be if the British and Irish Lions were ever to get their act together and do what so many rugby fans would applaud them for doing – organise a tour to South America.

Argentina would be the principal opponent for the three-match series but test matches could be played in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Santiago. Roll up, roll up, get your tickets here and be careful not to get trampled in the rush.

For those of you who might raise a quizzical eyebrow about Argentina being worthy opposition for the might of the Lions then it would be best to remember that such doubts were raised about Australia with the 1989 series being the first three-test, stand-alone, dedicated Lions tour to those parts in almost a century. (There had been several stop-off tests there down the years as the Lions headed for New Zealand). That series certainly hit the mark. Feistiness was very much part of the appeal, especially the catchweight punch-up between those two renowned bruisers, Robert Jones and Nick Farr-Jones, in the second test at Ballymore.

Los Pumas may have slipped slightly from the high-point status of the late noughties but there is no denying that they have the pedigree, the playing talent and the local interest to make it a worthwhile venture for all concerned. Just take in the scenes from the Beaujoire at the weekend as the massed ranks of Argentina and Chile supporters sang their songs and cheered on their men to imagine what might be.

Lions v Australia
The 1989 Lions tour was set against the backdrop of financial uncertainty but a testy Series put Australia on the map (Photo by Russell Cheyne/Getty Images)

You might well argue, also, that Argentina are currently better placed to progress at this World Cup, with a winner-takes-all shootout to come against Japan in Nantes on Sunday, than are Eddie Jones’ beleaguered Wallabies. The state of Australian rugby is a hot topic at the moment for all sorts of reasons, the  2025 Lions tour being one of them.

Australian rugby is withering. The Wallabies have done well for so long  in punching above their weight. It may be that their current woes are just a blip. However, the mood music within the Wallaby camp as well as from back in Australia, is pretty sombre. Rugby union in Australia has always had to battle for its minor placing in the sports marketplace. The expansionist profile of Aussie Rules and Rugby League has put a real dent in some of union’s catchment areas.

What does this alarming picture of decline mean for the 2025 Lions tour? Well, it ain’t great news that’s for sure. It is the most troubling backdrop since that first modern-day full tour in ’89.

On a weekend when Jones’ team were straining to keep the feintest pulse beating in their dreadful World Cup campaign, all the headlines back home were taken up by two outstanding finals in the NRL and the AFL. The Wallabies are in danger of being reduced to what we in the newspaper trade call SIB status – Sport In Brief, those little blob paragraphs given over to lacrosse or volleyball or field hockey, all very worthy sports in their own right but which struggle to elbow their way consistently into mainstream coverage.

What does this alarming picture of decline mean for the 2025 Lions tour? Well, it ain’t great news that’s for sure. It is the most troubling backdrop since that first modern-day full tour in ’89 which produced a compelling contest, the Lions recovering from defeat in the first test to take the series in Sydney.

Wallabies
The Wallabies are hanging on for dear life at the 2023 Rugby World Cup and expected to exit early (Photo Julian Finney – World Rugby/Getty Images)

It has been that way ever since – ferociously tight, dramatic and popular. Who can forget the stunning backdrop to the first test at the Gabba in 2001 with its Sea Of Red, the massed hordes of Lions’ fans, some 15-20,000, appearing almost overnight in Brisbane to trigger what has become an overseas odyssey for so many in all three southern hemisphere countries. Of course Australia scarcely needs a Tourist Board to sell its delights round the world. But the sport should not be an add-on to any trip. Unless the Australia Union gets its act together then there is real concern that any eight to ten match tour will be under-clubbed competitively. Super Rugby is not what it was although the emergence of Fijian Drua as a force is great news in its own right but also for any Lions tour headed to that part of the world. It would be a dereliction of duty to the game if the Drua were not to be part of the fixture schedule.

Argentina spent a long time going through this self-same cycle-of-torment – how to bridge the gap between amateur and professional status, how to persuade the rugby world that you’re serious in your ambition to compete with the best?

The game globally is in a state of flux. The World League that is due to come into being in 2026 will generate revenues for the sport but in its current guise, will do little to encourage those outside the chosen ones. There is no immediate prospect of a promotion and relegation structure that would quicken the pulse and give hope to Portugal and Uruguay and Chile at this World Cup. They have negligible meaningful output for their talent in between World Cups. There is so little prospect of anyone being able to invest in the sport in those countries, so little incentive for the best players to consider giving up well-remunerated part-time gigs in order to have a crack at a professional career.

Argentina spent a long time going through this self-same cycle-of-torment – how to bridge the gap between amateur and professional status, how to persuade the rugby world that you are serious in your ambition to compete with the best?

Chile v Argentina
With three South American sides bringing colour and a vibrancy to the World Cup, could that be transferred to a Lions tour? (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

Argentina did eventually manage to make that transition. It would be a brilliant stimulus for rugby in that part of the world if a Lions tour were ever head to South America. As Pumas’ captain, Jeronimo de la Fuente, said after Saturday’s win over Chile: “It is very important for the South America region that we have this kind of match. We want more.” It was a view echoed by Chile coach, Pablo Lemoine. “I like that there is a lot of talk about rugby even if it is being criticised. I love it being a topic of conversation.”

Will it ever happen? There is enough depth of resource across the three territories to make a full itinerary viable. It would be a magnificent experience on so many fronts – cultural, missionary and sporting. And for those who like a hearty steak with a drop of decent red there is no finer place in the world. Count me in.

Comments

12 Comments
S
Stephen11 251 days ago

This is a great idea. The Maori All Blacks tour in 2017 produced the biggest ever crowds to date for rugby in Brazil and Chile: 30,000 plus in Sao Paulo and 15,000 plus in Santiago. Rugby has taken a massive step forward in Chile after the World Cup qualification, with games on fee to air TV and unprecedented media coverage in the country. Games in Montevideo, Santiago and Sao Paulo before a test series against Argentina would be unreal.

J
Justin 254 days ago

Agree but there have already been three tours to South America, 1910, 1927 and 1936. You're also forgetting Brazil who would put up a fight. They gave NZ Maori a good game a few seasons ago in Sao Paulo.

P
Poe 255 days ago

How about hosting a tournament in the UK and giving them some of the gate?

N
Northandsouth 255 days ago

"Similar doubts were raised about Australia in '89" - you mean the Australia whose loss to France in the semis of the 1987 world cup was considered an upset and who won the 1991 world cup? There is little on the pitch evidence Los Pumas would present similar strength opposition to the Wallabies of that era.

J
JD Kiwi 255 days ago

Let’s be realistic Mick, Los Pumas are on a par with the Wallabies, but any other local team or South American national team aren’t anywhere near the right level. You’d be better off giving Chile and Uruguay more games against better tier two countries and maybe the likes of Italy.

A 2025 Lions match in Suva and maybe one in Apia should have been scheduled though.

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