Tuesday 12 December 2017

'09 Lions show the true value of touring

The Lions players huddle before the Third Test match between South Africa and The British and Irish Lions at Ellis Park. Photo: Stu Forster, Getty Images
The Lions players huddle before the Third Test match between South Africa and The British and Irish Lions at Ellis Park. Photo: Stu Forster, Getty Images

After three stunning, and often brutal, Test matches, the 2009 Lions returned home last week as series losers and concept saviours. The Lions, according to many commentators before and during the series, are an anachronism that cannot survive rugby's professional era.

The argument is undeniably logical: the modern game places such demands on players' time that there is no room in the calendar for a tour that requires so much of it. Forging a Test-quality team from four nations in just a few short weeks is, they say, not possible, particularly when the host nation offers up second- and third-rate opposition in the warm-up matches. The Lions are doomed to perpetual failure, so the argument goes, and that failure will destroy the concept.

For a while, this latest tour played into the hands of its critics. The Lions stumbled through most of their warm-up games in front of desultory crowds and were put to the sword for the first 50 minutes of the first Test. At that point, the Lions concept was entering its endgame. Then the tour came to life and the 2013 trip to Australia was saved. There is no escaping the statistics of defeat, and no lasting consolation in winning the third Test, but Ian McGeechan's squad proved there is far more to a Lions tour than results.

It may be an anachronism, but it is a good one. We may never again see Brian O'Driscoll partner Jamie Roberts in the centre, or Paul O'Connell scrum down with Simon Shaw at his side, but for a brief moment in time they came together to provide magical rugby and awesome commitment.

Tribal differences were buried and new relationships flourished, and not just for the players. It can only be good when Irish, Welsh and Scots are rooting for players like Joe Worsley, or Shaw; or when the English are in awe of Rob Kearney or Jamie Heaslip. Sport's narrow nationalism can blind: fans and pundits alike simply cannot see the quality in front of their eyes because it wears the wrong colour shirt.

Before the tour, few outside Ireland would have rated Kearney as the best full-back in the Six Nations, and now few would dispute it. Bowe, often derided at home for a perceived lack of pace, offered conclusive proof of his class and versatility. Few in Ireland would have nurtured fond thoughts about Shaw, or would have put Flutey on the squad, let alone the Test team.

Yet the beauty of this tour was that every player did what was asked of them, and more. Credit for that must go to McGeechan, the holder of the Lions flame, but also to O'Connell, who defied the often snide carping of his critics and led his team from the front. It is clear from the players' comments that O'Connell was a superb captain who earned their respect and affection. His leadership held them together after the trauma of the defeat in Pretoria, and he galvanised the response that delivered such an emphatic victory in Johannesburg.

There are, of course, lessons to be learned from the tour: the concept has been saved, but it is very far from perfect. The nonsense of the Lions 'brand' has been allowed to dominate, with the South Africans seeing the tour as an opportunity to gouge gullible tourists rather than as a celebration of rugby. The Lions brand is, sadly, seen in purely commercial terms -- shirt sales, TV rights, tour packages, ludicrous ticket prices -- yet the true brand is far more difficult to define, and impossible to put a price on.

It is about values -- old-fashioned, perhaps, but in desperately short supply in professional team sport. Lions tours show that camaraderie matters in sport, and not just the size of a player's cheque; they build character, forge friendships that last a lifetime and show that adversity brings the very best out of players. And, for those on the outside looking in, a Lions tour also delivers rugby of a quality and a passion that can be breathtaking.

The critics will, no doubt, pour more scorn on this squad if South Africa gets hammered in the Tri Nations, but they will miss the point. The Lions give rugby a dimension that other sports cannot achieve (golf's Ryder Cup is as close as it gets): they may be amateur in concept, but that is something to be treasured, not tossed away. McGeechan, O'Connell and their squad breathed new life into the Lions and saved it for the next group. That was their victory.

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