Monday 18 December 2017

Hollow result aside, this tour was a victory for the entire Lions concept

''It’s about keeping the show on the road, winning often enough to keep the punters on board and the commercial classes.'' Photo: Sportsfile
''It’s about keeping the show on the road, winning often enough to keep the punters on board and the commercial classes.'' Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Some years ago we got a call from an irate coach of minis rugby about IRFU plans to take the heat out of blitzes at that level. Tired of the point of the exercise - playing and enjoying the game - being lost in the winner-takes-all mentality promoted by the fella who made the phone call, the union decreed that everyone should go home with a medal. So no semis, no final, no presentation. Instead, you played the same number of games as everyone else and went home with exactly the same memento.

Interested to see what the kids thought of it all, we asked them. If memory serves they were about 10 at the time. The majority just wanted a game. Simple as that.

Coincidentally, two of them were in our company yesterday watching the heart-stopping drama in Eden Park. When Romain Poite blew for the last time the conversation unfolded as follows:

"So what happens now . . . extra time?"

"No, that's it. Eh, everyone's a winner!"

"Are you serious?"

It is anathema for professional sport at the end of a game to have two hands on the trophy when the hands belong to different bodies - or rather bodies from opposing sides. Imagine ringing up your American cousins and trying to explain that one.

In the pro game the result is everything. How you get there is important for attracting supporters in general to the sport, but by and large partisan fans too are concerned solely with how it turns out. They will put up with 80 minutes of sludge if at the end it's the opposition who have to wear it.

Sometimes, however, the stakes are so high that avoiding defeat is the welcome unmentionable. It was interesting to hear Steve Hansen trying to reduce the pressure last week talking about how losing the series would define neither the team nor its management.

Clearly Kieran Read had the hump with Poite's refereeing of the endgame. To allow Ken Owens away with offside at the end was hard to fathom. One second the Wales hooker was breastfeeding the ball; the next he was rejecting it as the offspring of the devil. Too late Ken. Oh hang on, you've just got a reprieve from the supreme court of crazy appeals.

That might explain why Read in post-match referred to "the reason we lost the game". If that's how it felt at the time, it will only get worse when they analyse a series where, astonishingly, New Zealand were trailing for just three minutes of 240.

Read knows, however, that an actual defeat would have been following him around to the end of his days. Kiwi captains would sooner lose a limb than a Test match.

In the red corner, meantime, there was massive relief. The talk had been about the need to close the sale in order to make it all worthwhile. It was just window dressing.

With the Lions it's not about winning. How could it be given their history of defeat? They have won two of six series in the pro era; and two of the last six in the amateur days. It's about keeping the show on the road, winning often enough to keep the punters on board and the commercial classes happy. And boy are they happy.

According to stats, albeit unsourced, published on the Eden Park Twitter feed last week, the city of Auckland got a boost of NZ$26.7m (€17m) to its economy thanks to the Lions invasion, with the national injection from tourists hitting an expected NZ$120m (€77m). Whatever the exact figures, it's been a tidal wave of cash.

The Lions have been content too, for the corporate world is only too happy to fork out and align itself to what is a unique brand. It will be interesting to see how that is impacted by what happens next.

According to PRL, the representative of England's clubs, the expedition to South Africa in 2021 will be reduced by one playing week, to five, and that it's up to the tourists and their hosts to decide how many games to put into that time-frame. With the global season due on stream a year before that, they say it's unfeasible to continue with the current format.

And they're right. Where they are wrong is their refusal to consider compromise in the domestic programmes. Such is the self-importance with which the Lions message is often conveyed it's easy to understand how some have come to loathe the concept. But despite its many constraints it works.

The quality of this Test series has been epic, and you can't have a Test series without warm-up games. So these tours need to be protected, not diminished. Its final bell yesterday may have had a hollow ring, but that's easily fixed. And even with that flaw, there was something for everyone.

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