Gerry Thornley: How long will the concept of the Lions stay relevant?

The tour has become more of a corporate venture while player welfare concerns continue to be prevalent


The first reaction to the news that the British & Irish Lions will play a match in Dublin for the first time ever is that it’s a blatant and relatively fail-safe opportunity to generate money. Of course, one understands that the Lions are to a large degree self-financing and tours to the southern hemisphere are a costly venture, but so much of what they do has become increasingly corporate.

Strictly speaking, this will not be the first time the Lions will play in Ireland, as Bill Beaumont led out a side in red comprised of players who had toured South Africa in 1980 under the guise of an International XV at Musgrave Park in a one-off match against Cork Constitution.

In any event, the Lions will take on Argentina on June 20th, 2025 ahead of their tour to Australia and although they could have chosen grounds with bigger capacities at Murrayfield (67,144), the Principality Stadium (73,931) or Twickenham (82,000), it’s a reflection of Irish rugby’s relative buoyancy that they’ve decided to tap into that feel good factor by opting for the Aviva Stadium (51,700).

Furthermore, Andy Farrell looks a shoo-in to succeed Warren Gatland as head coach, and as things stand Ireland could have the most players in the squad as well.

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By the same token, it’s also about time, as the Lions have been pretty much everywhere else, even going to Fiji in 1977 and France in 1989. The Lions played Argentina in one-off Tests as part of their 2005 and 1936 tours. There was also a four-Test series in 1927, albeit the tourists’ XV in all matches was comprised only of English and Scottish players and caps were not awarded.

The Lions won all six matches, scoring 211 points and conceding six, but when the Lions hosted the Pumas in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2005, they were fortunate to escape with a 25-all draw from a very poor game dominated by Stuart Dickinson’s whistle.

This was despite Los Pumas being without 25 players due to club commitments. An experimental Lions side, featuring Geordan Murphy, Denis Hickie, Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Byrne, John Hayes and Donncha O’Callaghan - with tour captain Brian O’Driscoll among those rested - looked disjointed. They turned the ball over 15 times in open play, were shoved off their own scrum ball three times and conceded five penalties for not releasing when tackled. But the most important figure was 61,569 - namely the attendance.

The Lions were only saved from an ignominious defeat by Jonny Wilkinson converting their sole try by centre Ollie Smith and landing six penalties, his last in the eighth minute of stoppage time. It proved an accurate portent of the doomed expedition to New Zealand which was to follow.

That was the Lions’ fourth game in the Welsh capital, having beaten Cardiff there in 1951 and Wales four years later, as well as a Rest of the World selection in 1986. The IRB having approved the 2003 game, caps were belatedly awarded a year later, although not so after the Lions beat Japan in Murrayfield in front of a covid-restricted attendance of 16,500 in 2021, when the monies raised by TV rights generated funding for the tour to South Africa. In many respects then, then Lions were due a game in Ireland.

Although Ian McGeechan and then Warren Gatland have done so much to keep the concept alive, increasingly one can’t help but feel that the players generally are playing too much rugby and Lions tours heap an unnecessary load on them.

Some of those who missed out on selection in 2021 were probably better off. Certainly, despite the World Cup quarter-final defeat, it’s hard not to believe that the erroneous decision by Gatland and Gregor Townsend not to pick Johnny Sexton was a blessing in disguise for him and Ireland.

Furthermore, if the Lions are to assume even greater meaning, thinking back to those tours to Argentina a long, long time ago, wouldn’t it be more adventurous to tour South America, and maybe take in games against Uruguay and Chile as well?

Spread the gospel and all that.