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Sinead Kissane: Why the Lions are roaring louder than ever in the professional era

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Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien 30/4/2013...REPRO FREE***PRESS RELEASE NO REPRODUCTION FEE*** 30/4/2013

(L-R) Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien are adidas ambassadors and have been selected for the British & Irish Lions squad. The Lions shirt is available from adidas.ie and Elverys stores nationwide.  Join the conversation @adidasUK

Images issued on behalf of adidas by Inpho

Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien 30/4/2013...REPRO FREE***PRESS RELEASE NO REPRODUCTION FEE*** 30/4/2013 (L-R) Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien are adidas ambassadors and have been selected for the British & Irish Lions squad. The Lions shirt is available from adidas.ie and Elverys stores nationwide. Join the conversation @adidasUK Images issued on behalf of adidas by Inpho

Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien 30/4/2013...REPRO FREE***PRESS RELEASE NO REPRODUCTION FEE*** 30/4/2013 (L-R) Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien are adidas ambassadors and have been selected for the British & Irish Lions squad. The Lions shirt is available from adidas.ie and Elverys stores nationwide. Join the conversation @adidasUK Images issued on behalf of adidas by Inpho

IT speaks to the heart rather than the head. Soul-stirring. Pulsating. Performers draw you in to the plot. But the critic and cynic can pick holes in it. Is it more than just a money-spinning machine? Is the whole show contrived?

The stage version of 'The Lion King' opened in Dublin last night two days after the Lions squad for the tour of Australia was named. Both are big productions with plenty of fanfare and with no sign of the run ending anytime soon. Unlike 'The Lion King', no one knows how the story of the Lions will end this summer.

On Tuesday, nine Irish players were selected in the Lions squad. In the ultra-driven chase for silverware in the professional era, a ticket to play on the representative side is as hot as ever.

It is an invitation to the most elite members' club in rugby in the northern hemisphere. Selection informs the basic instinct of every player – the desire to be the best.

It will be the first time since 2001 that the Lions will visit Australia. That series was Brian O'Driscoll's stage when he revealed his talent to the world.

But it was also a tour of discontent with some English players scribbling their frustration in newspaper columns. And following the 2-1 series defeat, there were rumblings that the Lions were in danger of extinction.

Twelve years on, tickets for the three Tests sold out within minutes of going on sale. Up to 40,000 fans are expected to make the trip to Australia from Ireland and Great Britain. As a team which exclusively plays away from home (to one of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia every four years), the Lions count on travelling fans.

It is an entity which has moved through the gears.

From the original model in 1888, which started the concept of northern hemisphere sides touring, the Lions tour has managed to move with the times and reinvent itself.

When the late Moss Keane was called up to the 1977 Tour of New Zealand, he had to miss out on a quarter of a year's pay from his job with the Department of Agriculture to go on that tour. The players got a daily allowance of the equivalent of three euro.

The '77 tour ran from May to the middle of August. In his book 'Rucks, Mauls and Gaelic Football', Keane described how he arrived at Dublin Airport for the trip with his kitbag and "a modest bag, big enough to hold two underpants, four pairs of socks with holes in five, a jumper with no elbows, a pair of jeans, a pants for good wear and three bottles of lucozade".

With the advent of professionalism, the commercial value of the Lions was recognised. When they toured New Zealand in 2005 the landscape had changed utterly. It was the first tour to make a profit but also the most expensive.

This year's tour starts with a game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong, an important base of the principal Lions sponsors, HSBC.

For Irish people living in Australia the chance to see Ireland players and the Lions will be priceless. Former Kerry and Sydney Swans star Tadhg Kennelly lives in Sydney and works as an International Talent Coordinator for the Australian Football League (AFL). Kennelly says there is massive hype among the Irish community.

"There is a huge amount of Irish out here in Oz right now, in all parts of the country. It's a huge opportunity to support your own countrymen, an opportunity that doesn't come along too often when you live so far away from Ireland.

"And it is a chance to hopefully get one over the Australians," Mr Kennelly said.

The Lions image may be overly accessorised but being part of an ethos drenched in history appeals to players.

The '99' was a famous battle-cry written into rugby folklore from the 1974 tour to South Africa. If a Lions player was in trouble on the pitch, the abbreviated version of '999' was shouted to teammates.

It was a simple emergency call. One in, all in. Off the pitch, it looks like the Lions won't have to make that call for their survival anytime soon. Australia head coach Robbie Deans this week described it as the 'ultimate rugby experience'.

This tour of Australia won't just be theatre. This will be box-office.

Sinead Kissane is a sports presenter and reporter at TV3

Irish Independent