Cooperation is key to give Lions a chance to roar in South Africa
Touring in front of empty stadiums a last resort as fears grow over viability of series
Paul O’Connell carries the ball during thr first Test against South Africa in 2009. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Rarely, if ever, has rugby union been in greater need of a silver bullet to solve all its problems. As older readers will remember that was once the Lone Ranger’s trademark, along with the habitual use of a mask to conceal his identity. How rugby’s Covid-threatened administrators would love a face-covered modern saviour to appear from nowhere and rescue their sport from looming oblivion.
The mundane reality, unfortunately, is that unions, clubs, television executives and sponsors can no longer act in isolation. Even if the British & Irish Lions somehow manage to unearth a feasible solution which preserves their scheduled tour of South Africa this summer, it is unlikely to satisfy everyone. What works for one party is invariably someone’s else’s non-starter.
Which is why, with the virus showing all the tenacity of a back-row forward with a persistent grudge, this is no time for self interest. If the Lions’ pride is to be upheld for decades it will only be because the major unions, the clubs and all other stakeholders work together to protect it. Anything less than a genuine collective heave and the whole glorious concept could be permanently compromised.
Take, for example, the idea that the Lions tour, given current rising infection rates and the uncertainty surrounding travelling fans, could simply be delayed a year until 2022. Even for the host nation that would be less than ideal, with the defence of their World Cup title in 2023 just over the horizon. For Eddie Jones, whose preparations for that tournament are already well advanced, there is absolutely nothing to be gained from waving his best 20-odd players off to South Africa just as he is looking to coalesce them into an England squad capable of beating the world.
It will, accordingly, take a brave man to tell Jones to lump it for the sake of a team who only tour once every four years, or a South African union who badly need the income. Unless Jason Leonard, the Lions’ chairman, can somehow force the RFU’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, into an old-style arm lock and murmur the ultimate threat – “If we can’t tour you’ll be here drinking with me every night” – it is even harder to see Twickenham subverting their own interests beneath those of the Lions committee. Money always talks and winning the 2023 World Cup would be worth rather more to England than a Lions series win over the Springboks.
At this point it is worth gauging the view from South Africa. Informed sources csuggest that, if this summer’s incoming tour is a non-runner, their next preference would be for a postponement until either November or the summer of 2022. That, though, would require World Rugby to dive headfirst into the argument and rip up a global tour schedule which has already been widely advertised. Would Ireland fancy heading to New Zealand for a three-Test series without their best players? No chance.
The next line down on the wishlist would be to shift the whole “tour” to Britain and Ireland, a perfectly fine idea in theory but one which also relies heavily on spectators being present. There would also be a host of other issues. Would a Lions series feel remotely the same beast if it took place on home soil? Who, exactly, would supply the midweek opposition with every major European club side on holiday? With the Euros, Wimbledon, the Open golf and the Olympics already in the diary, would it end up, perversely, damaging the special aura that makes the Lions so wonderfully different?
The absolute last resort, it seems, would be to play the games in South Africa with no fans. For anyone who has ever been on a Lions tour it is the grimmest scenario of the lot. What is the point of the Lions if it is not a cavalcade of human enjoyment, a catalyst for camaraderie and a union of four nations on and off the field? If there is any sporting event on Earth less suited to being played in a soulless bubble, it is a winner-takes-all series involving the Boks and the Lions.
No real sign, then, of a silver bullet, particularly as northern hemisphere officials are pushing for an early decision. By contrast, there are those who believe infection rates in South Africa are destined to fall within a matter of weeks. If, on the other hand, this year’s Lions tour were to be mothballed now it might allow the Six Nations to be delayed and played, complete with crowds, in July and August instead. Not ideal, clearly, with so much other sport around but better than another soul-sapping, echo chamber of a championship. To have one Six Nations championship played partly behind closed doors in 2020 was bad enough for rugby’s coffers. To have another entire tournament played out in silence would be ruinous.
It would be more sensible, surely, to take a longer-term view. If South Africa cannot host this Lions tour they could be guaranteed the next edition in 2025 ahead of Australia. If the touring side were to step aside this summer the blow could also be eased by the firm promise of extra preparation time and a proper 10-match schedule next time. After an eight-year hiatus, the appetite for the returning Lions would be huge, their worth more cherished than ever. By then, too, people might even have started to forget the grim winter of 2020-21, the heavy toll it exacted and the money-driven masquerade that Test rugby almost became. - Guardian