In the summer of 1997 the Lions went to South Africa on their first tour of the professional era. It was a game-changer, a game-saver, a game you were glad to have seen up close. It's debatable how many folks at the time appreciated the reality: if this first foray into the unknown was a washout then there might not be a follow-up. Everything was up in the air back then.
Two years earlier rugby shifted from amateur to pro, to save the sport from disappearing at the top level under pressure from those happy to pay the marquee names. For many, the first season of the new era had been one of standing still to see what others were doing. In the second, things gathered a bit of pace. Control of players and competitions was the battleground, so it was easy to see why we looked at the Lions and feared for their survival.
To have gone to South Africa in '97 and to have had their arses handed to them on a plate, and to have brought modest numbers of supporters with them - both were distinct possibilities as the season kicked off the previous September. Thankfully it was nothing like that.
The numbers of fans following the tour, especially from Wales, was massive: somewhere between 12-15,000. That had never happened before. The prospect of an attractive exchange rate, combined with affordable air fares in a liberalised market, played their part. So did the simple fact that it was South Africa. The atmosphere the fans created was unique. The positive impact on the South African economy was quickly noted by Australia and New Zealand who were next on the schedule, four and eight years later respectively.
By the time we got to New Zealand in 2005 the Lions brand had become a powerhouse. If the four home unions had to underwrite the first two tours of the professional era then all was changed by the time we went to NZ. Four years earlier, in Australia, the numbers almost added up, but by 2005 the Lions was an earner. That timing was critical, for by then the English club owners were looking at the gig as an interference with their business. Turning a profit calmed them down a bit.
If you recall how bad that tour was you'll appreciate how important it was for the Lions to have serious commercial clout. Clive Woodward was well intentioned in fundamentally changing the template from a tour where players had a decent shot at proving themselves ahead of Test selection into one where two distinct groups emerged, with obvious and negative implications for morale. Two tours within a tour, compounded by players rooming on their own instead of in pairs. Disaster.
Except for the New Zealand Rugby Union, who made £12m from the games, and New Zealand Inc whose tourism was boosted by a spend of £140m. A travelling band of more than 20,000 had made their way south.
Four years later, in Australia, the influx was similar. Happy Days. The Australian Rugby Union cleared their £12.2m debt with lots to spare from a £40m gush into their system. And that was just the ARU's take.
If you were a part of the Lions juggernaut your nose would have been out of joint at the money local unions were making off your back. The tourists would have their hotels paid for - small beer when the hosts had the gate receipts and the TV revenue. Changing that picture radically would have prompted the Tri Nations to look for a profit share every time they flew north in November. So the four home unions, already making a profit from the Lions, let it slide, albeit with an agreement that let the tourists have access to a decent number of paid match tickets which they could then package themselves.
So where are we now? Just before last Christmas, South African Rugby Union president Mark Alexander was licking his chops at the prospect of the Lions coming in summer 2021.
"The projections are that 13,300 temporary jobs will be created, with many evolving to sustainable and permanent jobs," he told the Sport24 website. "We are expecting 37,000 tourists to support the Lions across South Africa. There will be a R450 million tax benefit to Government and significant economic benefits."
You'd imagine he's revised those figures downwards, and however far down he is now the prayer will be that the tour simply goes ahead. And if it does, how different it will look to 1997. There were 13 games on that adventure: two handy ones to start and eight in all for coaches Iain McGeechan and Jim Telfer to settle on their Test team. By comparison Warren Gatland, whose knowledge of every little thing around Lions touring is by now encyclopaedic, will have eight games from start to finish. No gimmes to start, rather a rush into battle against the Stormers. Then four more games before the first Test, in Johannesburg.
That tour opener will take place the week after England's Premiership final, a date reiterated last week. So Gatland will have no room to move. He is accustomed to that, but it will be interesting to see how many players he decides to bring for the scheduling at home and on tour applies a tourniquet to an already heavily bandaged limb. Fingers crossed it still has some blood flowing through it by the time we get to next summer.
Sunday Indo Sport