It won't have been uppermost on his list of considerations, but Warren Gatland did us all a favour when he dropped Brian O'Driscoll for the final Test. The squeals of high dudgeon since Wednesday have crystallised for everybody what watching a Lions series is really all about. And more to the point, what it really isn't all about. It proved conclusively that the Lions don't have supporters. The Lions have an audience.
There's a Jerry Seinfeld gag that seems apt here, to do with women's endless curiosity as to what's going on inside men's brains at any given time. "You want to know what we're thinking?" he says. "Nothing. We're just walkin' around, lookin' around."
Same with the Lions. You want to know what the Lions means to most people? Nothing. To the players and staff and the family and friends thereof, absolutely it’s a big deal. To the press and their advertisers as well. It’s king of the hill, top of the heap. But to the workaday sports enthusiast, a Lions tour couldn’t be less important.
Oh, we watch it. Of course we do. Wouldn’t miss a minute. As ticks on the sporting clock go, the lure of the Lions is irresistible. Four countries on one, the best melding with the best, decades of folklore to give it all context. Add in the fact that it happens once every four years, tongued and grooved nicely into summers that have no big soccer tournaments or Olympic Games. It’s the perfect combination of high quality and low quantity.
But when we woke up on Wednesday morning to the news that Gatland had slipped the latch on the trapdoor beneath O’Driscoll’s feet, it became very clear very quickly what actually matters. And it’s not four hearts beating as one, nor is it nailing the Aussies to the floor.
Win the series, lose the series – we all go about our Saturday. But drop Drico and it's Chicken Licken time. Sky falling, panic in the streets. The actual outcome of tomorrow morning's game won't bring anything like the same reaction.
Forces at play
There are two forces at play here. The first and most obvious is the depth of this country's love for Brian O'Driscoll. That's the right word, by the way. Irish people love him. Irish men, especially. He's one of the few people in public life here that you never hear a bitter word about. Even journalists struggle for sly gossip about him – and we'll bitch about anybody.
So when it was confirmed that Sam Warburton was going to miss the final Test through injury, the reaction of most Irish people was to see it in terms of what this would mean for O'Driscoll. That Warburton had been immense in the second Test and could be badly missed in the third was a secondary concern.
Instead, there was a sense of the planets aligning. O’Driscoll would be captain for his last Lions Test, with the chance to clear at a stroke the cosmic debt built up by the three series that had gone before. When Gatland decided he wasn’t even going to be allowed to tog out, most of the outrage was centred around the slight visited upon a great man.
Hence the plethora of conspiracy theories. That Gatland was exacting revenge for O’Driscoll’s loose words at the end of the second Test regarding the Lions’ style of play. That Gatland was keeping his Welsh players happy ahead of his return to the national job for next year’s Six Nations. Best of all, that he had waited in the long grass all these years to get back at the IRFU for the way his Ireland career had ended.
But sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. By far the most likely scenario is that Gatland didn’t fancy O’Driscoll for the way he wanted his team playing in the final Test. Occam’s razor, and all that.
What's interesting, though, is the depth of reaction. People here clearly care more about what happens to Brian O'Driscoll than about what happens to the Lions. You only had to listen to BBC Radio FiveLive for half an hour on Wednesday morning to realise that in Scotland, they cared more about the fact that they can't get a player on the pitch than they do about either O'Driscoll's travails or the fate of the team. And all of this sprouts directly from the second force at play – the general public's indifference to the overall result.
This is very simple. People like the idea of the Lions. They like watching the games. They like jawing over who should and shouldn't be in the team. When they're picking a side to get behind, they obviously pick the one most familiar to them. But do they care who wins? Nope. Not even a little bit.
To argue that they do is to ignore what supporting a team entails. Any team, in any sport. It doesn’t matter whether you were in the Maracana last Sunday night or are going to Nowlan Park tomorrow evening, the outcome should affect your mood. For good or for ill, even if it’s just the fatalistic shrug of lived-down-to expectations. The result has to matter.
A Lions series is a twin of the Ryder Cup. Great sport, compelling drama, unmissable when the margins are as tight as they have been. But five minutes after it’s over, it’s gone. The aftertaste of your Saturday morning breakfast has a longer shelf-life. Because to rob a phrase from one of those nice Anglo lads, virtually nobody outside the participants have skin in the game.
That's why the Sky Sports coverage has been so grating. While they've been at DefCon 1 since the Lions left for Hong Kong, the hype has probably not been significantly greater than would normally be the case during the soccer season. But when they stitch a Super Sunday label onto Stoke v Sunderland in the middle of November, there will at least be a few million people who care deeply about the result. As Alan Quinlan wrote here last week, that's not even the case for the people in the stadium on a Lions tour.
So there's a disconnect here. Sky's coverage has assumed that a Lions win matters as much to the people watching on their couch as it does to Paul Wallace and Scott Quinnell, to Will Greenwood and Ian McGeechan. Unusually for them, they've misjudged their audience. For that's what we are. An audience, not a fanbase. A pretty lucrative one too.
So the concept itself isn’t going anywhere soon. Any worries that it wouldn’t survive in the professional era have been routed. Indeed, it’s the very fact that it’s out of kilter with the rest of the calendar that will guarantee its survival. One man’s anachronism is another’s USP, after all. They’ll keep playing, we’ll keep watching.
But Gatland’s abrupt Dricectomy this week asked everybody some straight-forward questions. Do you actually give a toss about the Lions winning or losing? Do you only care about the part of the Lions you’re already emotionally attached to? Or, when brass comes to tacks, do you see it as a bit of harmless diversion to be enjoyed for 240 minutes of action every four years and instantly forgotten thereafter?
Door Number Three, please. Every time.