Sunday 18 March 2018

Lions need home unions' help to remain the main event

Conor Murray kicks upfield during yesterday’s drawn test match in New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
Conor Murray kicks upfield during yesterday’s drawn test match in New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Rees

When Warren Gatland submits his report on the tied Lions series in New Zealand to the four home unions, he will repeat the plea made four years ago for more preparation time. Heads will nod in agreement but all that is set to change by 2021, when the Lions will be in South Africa, is that two matches are cut from the schedule to give the players and management an extra week together.

It would be, as the former Lions wing and manager Gerald Davies said, the death of the Lions by a thousand cuts. It is an irony that in an era when international coaches have greater access to their players than ever before - even in England and France, the two unions with strong club competitions - those in charge of the Lions are seeing less of theirs.

Back in 1971, when the Lions won a series in New Zealand for the first time, a tour gave players the chance to taste professionalism, not in terms of payment - their daily allowance would not have paid for a phone call home - but the opportunity to train every day. It was a time when a national side would have a couple of training sessions in the week of a Test and one night in a hotel together on the eve of it.

The game was then for players who, as long as their employers acquiesced, were able to take three months off to fly away with the Lions and then have a leisurely delayed start to the new club season: in 1971, Barry John and Gareth Edwards did not play for Cardiff until December, more than three months into the campaign.

Players are now commodities, there to be traded. The Lions have been persuaded to reduce tours to eight matches by pressure exerted by English clubs who, not unreasonably, have questioned why they should be expected to release major assets, albeit for substantial compensation, for a tour of such length that they would miss the start of the following season.

The first decade of professionalism in Europe was pockmarked by disputes that blew up because issues tended to be looked at in black and white. If that continues with the Lions, they will probably never tour New Zealand again, perishing through self-mutilation.

A successful Lions tour gives the game in Britain and Ireland a stimulus unlike anything else. More than 20,000 supporters were in New Zealand for the series, or parts of it, and the tour has hogged media attention for a month, providing wall-to-wall advertising that will feed through to clubs big and small.

Rugby union is not like football, where if a big name at a leading club sneezes or declares that he knows what two and two add up to it makes the back pages. It is a minority sport that has to shout to make itself heard. Take away the roar of the Lions and rugby starts talking in whispers.

The Lions are priceless, yet they are being treated like a plastic toy in a cheap Christmas cracker. As Steve Hansen, the New Zealand coach, reflected last week, there are some involved with clubs whose vision for rugby is a game that becomes, like football in England, club dominated: players would represent their countries in tournaments but clubs would not be obliged to release them for friendlies.

Test rugby is the game's financial driver, but it is under stress - with Australia contracting and South Africa struggling to hold on to their leading players.

New Zealand were able to give the Lions a thorough workout before the Test series because of the strength of the game there but had they been in South Africa or Australia the Lions would probably have been underdone going into the first Test.

There has been talk of stopping off in Argentina en route to Australia in 2025 to ensure a better buildup but, just as playing only eight matches would undermine one of the Lions' core values, that every player in the squad is given an opportunity to canvass for a berth in the first Test, so would playing a Test at the start.

The international system would be in danger of collapsing without the Lions, whose visits to the southern hemisphere every four years are the difference between profit and loss in the case of New Zealand and South Africa and survival or potential ruin in Australia's.

Which is why the four home unions have to fight harder than they have been for the future of the Lions, looking to expand, not contract. The international game is small, just 10 tier-one nations; if Australia and South Africa continue to decline, there is a danger of a vacuum clubs would look to fill, ensuring the Lions were no longer - if you will pardon the pun - the mane event.


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