Tuesday 24 October 2017

Commercial juggernaut rolls again

The beauty of the Lions is that they don't have to win on the field for the series to be a success

Setting the tone: the first Test in New Zealand, 1971. Photo: Getty Images
Setting the tone: the first Test in New Zealand, 1971. Photo: Getty Images
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the summer of 1971 we were packed off as usual to our cousins in Limerick. They lived in Greystones, in the shadow of the Gaelic Grounds on the Ennis Road. The patch of wasteland behind the terrace at the east end of the ground was known locally as The Backs, a lethal mix of gravel and tufty grass where our matches of great importance were played out.

We don't remember rugby being on the agenda, but as an outsider it was wiser to observe local politics. We ate from the table d'hote sports menu. One afternoon though, on a quick pit stop in the relations' gaff across the road, there was the uncle in the sitting room watching a rugby match - or highlights of one - in black and white. It looked important. It was the Lions in New Zealand.

Mike Gibson. Photo: Sportsfile
Mike Gibson. Photo: Sportsfile

The light had already gone on with us about a game that was still years away from having footholds for minis and youths across the country. But this was confirmation of something special. We were late returning to The Backs that afternoon. And we had the sporting equivalent of a note from your folks: a compelling story to tell from a country at the other end of the world.

It remains the only successful Lions tour of New Zealand: one series win from 11 attempts. Of the 35 Tests played there, starting in 1904, the Lions have won just six. So 1971 doesn't just stand out, it's like a tropical island where other tours to that country are rocky outposts.

Our graphic features extracts from When Lions Roared, an account by Tom English and Peter Burns of that 26-match tour, which included two in Australia en route. If you are heading there in the coming weeks then this book will speed your journey. And if not, it will entertain you in any case. It's a remarkably candid and colourful account from those at the business end of a trip in, literally, another century.

Can you imagine Sam Warburton, on the night of the first Test next month, leading his team into the changing room at Eden Park to find it in a heap - as was pack leader Willie John McBride's experience at Carisbrook in '71?

Willie John McBride. Photo: Getty Images
Willie John McBride. Photo: Getty Images

What followed that day was a game where, watching it back on YouTube, you have to suspend disbelief, not just at what was allowed to unfold on the field, but also how the tourists managed to win a game where they couldn't win a lineout to save their lives, and never seemed to have the ball for longer than five seconds at a time.

Even allowing for the fact that the plan was to run New Zealand full-back Fergie McCormick around that suburb of south Dunedin - and it worked - much of the Lions' kicking was of the 'lose it before we get cleaved' variety. Whatever, it was only the third ever Test win on New Zealand soil. And it set the tourists up for glory.

Losing the series was described by All Black legend Colin Meads as "a national disaster". They weren't abused by supporters, he said, rather they were scorned. Or as Ian Kirkpatrick put it: "It wasn't a great time to be an All Black."

So much has changed since then, but the level of importance attaching to the All Blacks winning at home hasn't diminished. The New Zealand public are more questioning of rugby's role in society now, but not when the Lions land. It's at that point every man, woman and child mobilises to defend their boys.

Ian McLauchlan. Photo: Getty Images
Ian McLauchlan. Photo: Getty Images

The apogee of that operation was in 2005. Well, it was the high point in efficiency. Three-nil in the Test series wasn't a unique occurrence, but the performance in the first Test, in Christchurch, was so comprehensive, in such difficult conditions, that you knew the gulf wouldn't be bridged if the tourists were given a couple of extra men.

Ironically the low point came at exactly the same time when indeed the Lions could have had those couple of extras. The Christchurch Test will be remembered more for the spearing of Brian O'Driscoll than the skill of the All Blacks in coping with the gale-force southerly and the wet ball. And that's their fault. The same rigour didn't attend discipline over dangerous tackles back then, so it's superfluous pointing out that by today's standards they would have been reduced to 13 men before the game had even warmed up. The galling bit was that subsequently they couldn't hold their hands up, even when the threat of sanction had passed. Rather a rugby nation circled the wagons and branded O'Driscoll a whinger. How cheap was that?

Twelve years later the nuts and bolts keeping the game together have been replaced by technology at every turn. The changes in law have quickened the game up again, and with the increase in power and pace has come a legal pressure to show duty of care. There's not a lot goes unpunished, which is a country mile from 1971, when rucking was a euphemism for stamping on anyone unfortunate to fall over at the wrong time.

With every change, however, the Kiwis have either shaped it in advance or adapted without breaking stride. If it's your national pastime then you make it your business to stay on top of things. So given their pre-eminence they would be favourites if the series was to take place on neutral territory, and at a time of year when their opponents weren't at the end of their season. Given that neither of these is the case, you understand why the All Blacks are 1/5 to win the series.

By the time they've cleaned off their boots from the tour opener against a provincial select side in Whangarei on Saturday the Lions will have the Blues, the Crusaders, the Highlanders and then the Maori coming at them in the space of 10 days. It's a brutal schedule, and you wonder how they seem to walk willingly into this minefield.

Fergus Slattery. Photo: Getty Images
Fergus Slattery. Photo: Getty Images

As ever, the Lions' place in the grand scheme of things is up for debate. Pressure is coming from all sides to squeeze more into the season, and the likelihood is that South Africa in four years will be a five-week affair with eight games instead of the current six and 10. The more you shrink it the less chance you have of producing a competitive combination by the first Test, but that's not top of the agenda.

If the Lions weren't such a commercial juggernaut they would be in the rear-view mirror long-since. Consider that they will bring over 30,000 fans to New Zealand over June and July; that the Test series will be broadcast in 120 countries; that the bean counters in the NZRU are salivating over the wedge about to drop into their bank account.

Four years ago in Australia the Lions arrived, suitably dressed in red, to do their Santa Claus routine and bail out the debt-ridden ARU to the tune of an estimated €58m-€68m. Even though the tv rights go to the host rather than a share with the tourists - this is the last tour of the current agreement so the debate will escalate on that issue - the latter still make money given they are beating sponsors off with a stick. This constituency provides 75 per cent of the Lions' income, with travel and hospitality taking up 20 per cent. There are no less than 16 'partners' on this current trip, probably sponsoring everything from jacks paper to god knows what.

The exposure is clearly worth the effort because it doesn't rely on the Lions winning on the field. The beauty of a four-year gap is that enthusiasm is renewed every time. And before a flight leaves these shores it's already a commercial success.

The chances of it being matched this time by the players are slim, and slimmer still after the withdrawal of Billy Vunipola, but they will be paid a basic of circa €81k for trying. It was hard to think of a worse way for the tourists to start the week, factoring out the best ball-carrier in the Six Nations. Warren Gatland is budgeting for up to 10 cry-offs before it's all over. That seems reasonable, so you can imagine the impact that will have on the quality of the group by the time they get to the final Test, in Eden Park on July 8.

We feel sure that at least they will be greeted there by a clean changing room, a perfectly prepared pitch, and a television audience stretching around the globe. Well removed from 1971 then, but unlikely to bridge the gap.

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