Thursday 25 May 2017

Gruelling schedule risks killing goose that lays the golden eggs

Mike Phillips of the Lions clears the ball during the International Test match between the Australian Wallabies and British & Irish Lions at ANZ Stadium, Sydney in 2013.
Mike Phillips of the Lions clears the ball during the International Test match between the Australian Wallabies and British & Irish Lions at ANZ Stadium, Sydney in 2013.

Jim Glennon

The professional rugby treadmill churns on relentlessly. Only four weeks ago, the blinkers were on and our immersion in the Six Nations was total, followed by short, sharp doses of Guinness Pro12 and European action. And that's without mentioning the concluding stages of the All-Ireland League, which you'd be doing well to be even remotely aware of if you're not a member of one of the participating clubs.

One topic of discussion has remained constant through this period: the likely composition of the Lions squad for the trip to New Zealand. The performances of probables, possibles and bolters are under constant scrutiny. In Ireland we are probably somewhat spoiled right now, with our attention monopolised by our European semi-finalists. Time, and semi-final results, may change this, but there is nonetheless a sense in Irish rugby circles that interest in the Lions has yet to spark.

The place of the Lions in the pantheon of world rugby's greatest entities is long-established, and while the concept has sustained itself superbly in the professional era, it is facing a watershed period.

Those fortunate and talented enough to have worn the famous kit speak in glowing terms of the experience, and the tours have provided some of the game's most iconic images. Indeed, the Lions tour has been consistently cited in recent years as one of the few remaining embodiments of rugby's traditional values.

Nonetheless the concept represents something of a paradox in that in most senses such a project has no place in top-class professional sport. However, not only has it survived the transition from the amateur era, it has thrived, transforming itself into a commercial powerhouse over the last 20 years.

The cornerstone of that transformation has been the 'brand' - indeed it is a case-study for sports marketing.

A couple of weeks ago Martin Johnson, captain of the first two professional tours in 1997 and 2001, said that watching his children play rugby is the limit of his involvement in rugby; at the bottom of the article, we were told that "For this interview, he is representing Standard Life, a British & Irish Lions sponsor. He is also a brand ambassador for Land Rover, another Lions sponsor." This speak volumes of the Lions' massive commercial clout.

Yet, the question occurred to me of the extent of interest at this juncture of those outside of the rugby industry (and those outside the reach of Sky Sports).

In the years since the 2013 tour to Australia, the sport's structures and the balance of power have undergone significant change, particularly in Europe. Few, however, will argue that the global game is better for these changes. Commercial realities are at their core, with vast sums of money involved; this growing commercialism on the part of governing bodies and club-owners has generated a level of cynicism among supporters, particularly those of long standing who would have identified themselves through the years as 'rugby people'.

These commercial realities demand a highly attritional Lions tour schedule of 10 games in five weeks against high-calibre opposition, including three Tests against the world champions, with the opener a mere seven days after the finals of the Aviva Premiership and Pro12.

This commitment represents massive, and questionable, demands on the players at the end of an already lengthy and tough season, in a host country where national pride is on the line and nothing is ever easily conceded. Regardless of the spectacle and its guaranteed commercial success, the words 'flog', 'dead' and 'horse' come to mind, as does the law of diminishing returns.

Interest in the Lions took a quantum leap forward with the victorious tour to South Africa in 1997. The advent of professionalism, the fresh input of Sky Sports and a vastly expanded range of media outlets combined with savvy marketing skills to create a huge success story based on the brand's uniqueness and traditions.

That brand is now a global powerhouse of sport; its successful management demands a delicate balancing act and there is a fear that the hard sell of recent years has removed much of the sheen from what has been one of our sport's cherished institutions. Indeed, this year's tour has already been cynically described as 'the merger of two of the biggest sources of bullshit in professional sport'.

When the tour does roll around feelings may well have changed - Champions Cup campaigns will be but a distant memory and the GAA season will have yet to ramp up fully. The tour will fill a void for hungry media outlets but the television viewing figures will disclose the real level of interest and, with it, the prospects of survival for another once-great institution of the game.

Finally, while on the topic of great traditions of the sport, the final of the Leinster Provincial Towns Cup takes place in Athy today with my own club Skerries facing Tullow in what should be a great event; a long way from the Lions (even if Leinster's Sean O'Brien is helping with the coaching of his home-town club) but as good an advertisement for the traditions of community rugby that you're likely to see. Best of luck to all involved.

Sunday Indo Sport

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