Monday 18 December 2017

Selfish clubs can't be allowed to kill off Lions


It is my belief that the Lions will be finished within the next 12-year cycle. There are too many external pressures piling in on them. Photo: Sportsfile
It is my belief that the Lions will be finished within the next 12-year cycle. There are too many external pressures piling in on them. Photo: Sportsfile

Mick Cleary

Queue for taxis. Queue for trains. Queue for entrance to Eden Park. Yet they all bided their time willingly. They all handed over bundles of money, for tickets, for food, for beers. At least the rain ponchos were handed out for free. And they were needed as the Auckland weather turned nasty, the heavens opening. But whatever was thrown at the 20,000 Lions fans on Saturday night, from the throng in the city to the chastening 30-15 defeat on the field, nothing could dampen the mood. They would all come again.

The Lions are big news, whatever your normal preference. The tale of the tour reaches out far beyond rugby's normal constituency. And that is even though the games are broadcast on satellite television.

But this is something else. This is about romance and Everest-like challenges, about rivals coming together in a common cause, about bucking the normal trend for international sports teams, pampered in their preparation, removed from their familiar comfort zone. The Lions concept is different. And that is what makes it special.

Now tell me who contested the 2017 Aviva Premiership final? And the Pro12 final? Struggling? You probably are unless you're a Wasps or Exeter or Munster or Scarlets fan, Exeter won in extra-time, 23-20, while a bloke called Liam Williams helped the Scarlets hammer Munster 46-22.

There have been similar tries to the one inspired by Williams on Saturday in many a Premiership or Pro 12 game. Are they the talk of the sporting world? No, they are not. The Lions, though, have reach and impact.

That is why it matters that the very notion of a Lions tour is under such grievous threat. It is my belief that the Lions will be finished within the next 12-year cycle. There are too many external pressures piling in on them.

They are under assault from the English clubs in particular. Even though it has not yet been formally ratified, the five-week, eight-game Lions tour is a fait accompli. If that does come into existence for the next Lions tour in 2021 to South Africa, it will be a Lions tour in name only.

It will not be a proper Lions tour as it compromises the fundamental principle of fair selection by having enough games in which to prove yourself worthy of Test selection. Even this 10-game trip has stripped it back to bare bones audition time.

You might as well select 35 players back home and be damned. Play a three Test series. But don't call it a Lions tour. Because it won't be.

It beggared belief to read the comments of two distinguished figures of the club game, Exeter's Tony Rowe, and Leicester's Simon Cohen, speak so curmudgeonly of the Lions as if it were an old aunt in the corner emitting funny smells.

Of course, they are protecting their own turf and their own assets, the players. But to see the Lions tour as an irritant, an anomaly, a pain in the backside is wrong. Plain wrong.

The clubs are short-changing their own if they influence the Lions' death. Of course, there are welfare issues in terms of the number of games played during the course of a season.

Certainly no player I have ever come across has ever dismissed the Lions as an anachronism, as an idea out of step with the modern way. Quite the opposite. These are the sort of experiences that fire their imaginations when they are kids.

Joe Marler told a story on Sunday night about his Harlequins team-mate and fellow prop, Kyle Sinckler, at the first Lions training camp in Wales. Departure for New Zealand was still three weeks away. Yet Sinckler was bouncing around like a young pup, pestering Ireland hooker, Rory Best, with inquiries about binding in the scrum, angles, timing, all the sort of stuff that they had weeks to hone.

The gnarled pair, Marler and Best, told the novice to pipe down. "But this is the best time of my life," said Sinckler. "I'm living the dream."

Him and millions of others. The Lions have real significance. They raise the profile of the sport to a level that many multinational companies investing a lot of money on promotion would die for. And yet there are those in the clubs who deem the concept bad for business. Short-termism and self-interest must not be allowed to rule. Protect the Lions. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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