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Gerry Thornley: What rugby needs is more Lions, not less

English clubs’ attempts to curtail or undermine the tours must be faced down

If ever a Lions tour in the professional tour provided compelling evidence that this wonderful relic of the amateur era should be maintained long into the future, and perhaps forever more, then the 2017 vintage in New Zealand is the one.

For sure, the 1997 tour to South Africa did as much as any trek to sustain the brand. Firstly, there was the high drama of Jeremy Guscott’s drop goal which secured a series win in the second Test, despite the Springboks outscoring the Lions by nine tries to three in the series but declining to pick an international quality goal-kicker.

Almost as importantly, there was the fly-on-the-wall documentary which gave the Lions a modern-day Sky Sports edge and new-found Lions’ mystique.

The 2001 tour was a cliff-hanger, and hinged on a few match-turning moments in the third Test, such as Richard Hill’s half-time departure, Jonny Wilkinson’s intercept pass and Justin Harrison’s lineout steal at the death. The Lions actually scored eight tries to seven in that series.

The 2005 tour did untold damage, and the brand was on the precipice four years later until the Lions salvaged a third Test win in a dead rubber in South Africa.

The 2013 tour provided an overdue series win, but a drawn series with scarcely any preparation for a ten-match tour comprising matches against the five franchises – including arguably the four best non-Test sides in the world and the Maori – and then a three match series against the back-to-back world champions is arguably the best of the lot. All the more so after going one-nil down.

At a stroke, the thrilling second Test win in Wellington atoned for all of the 2005 tour. The dramatic draw in the third sealed the deal. So what if 12 years awaiting, two years of planning, six weeks of touring, ten matches and three Tests yielded no winner.

Let’s hear it for draws. The GAA cherish them and often deliver them in September. Some of sport’s finest days have been draws. This one ensured unique sporting images from a Lions tour to New Zealand; the two captains jointly lifting the trophy, the two squads intermingling in pictures which reflected the stands in Eden Park.

Rugby was the winner, and of course the damned bookies.

And if the USA doesn’t like draws, then they’re probably a good thing.

The Lions’ bargaining position should, right now, never be stronger. And yet those noisy, self-serving Premiership Rugby clubs are at it again. Not content with damaging the European Cup, they want to scrap or at least undermine Lions’ tours even more.

Long-haul flight

It is thanks to the club game that Warren Gatland and his coaches were only granted access to their entire 41-man squad on the Sunday before departure, six days before their first game, in which they also had to undertake their long-haul flight.

The players say they were shattered and jetlagged for the first week and a half or so. It showed in the opening two games against the Provincial Barbarians and the Blues. With another week’s preparation, and 12 games instead of ten, they might have won this series. Far from it being the “suicidal" itinerary that Graham Henry had described it, in actual fact Warren Gatland’s claim that the toughness of the schedule would better ready the Lions for the Tests was proven right.

Had the Lions played provincial sides, or only played four preparatory games instead of six, they wouldn't have been nearly as well prepared for meeting the almighty All Blacks. What helped was the unexpected Pro12 semi-final defeats for Leinster and the Ospreys, as well as Saracens in the Premiership play-offs. Critically, it freed up Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar for the four-day camp in the Carton House. Tellingly, seven of last Saturday's starting line-up were in that Carton House camp.

When Gatland says the Lions need a full week’s preparation before departure, he should know better than anybody. If needs be, why couldn’t this tour have kicked off, and therefore finished, a week later?

Yet the mouthpieces for Premiership Rugby, self-serving as ever, have backed up demands for more money from the Exeter chairman and Leicester by decreeing, from their pulpit, that Lions tours should be reduced.

Mark McCafferty, CEO of PRL, said: “To be playing 10 matches in a five-week period is too much and our views on that have not changed.” This was due to their concerns about player welfare. Ha! It certainly doesn’t reflect their own players’ wants.

Scarily, the RFU chief executive Ian Richie maintained: "I do not think there is anything in eight games as opposed to ten that eradicates what the Lions is about and I think it is perfectly tenable."

That shows what he knows.

The good news is that Richie is soon moving on. The bad news is that McCafferty does not appear to be.

These myopic gentlemen should have been here for the last six weeks, or even the last three, even if they had to be dragged kicking and screaming. It might have opened their blinkered eyes.

Full houses

They’d also have seen 25-30,000 Lions fans invading New Zealand, helping to generate many millions for the New Zealand economy. A total of 342,000 supporters attended the ten matches, which were nearly all vibrant full houses.

The chairman of Exeter and CEO of Leicester have demanded more wanga. If anybody deserves a bigger slice of the pie it is the Lions and by extension the four Home Unions, which receive around €1.5million each, whereas the NZRU will receive a windfall of between €16m to €21m. The next deal ought to be more equitable.

Aside from which, the Lions is a concept akin to the Ryder Cup. Other sports would die for it.

The world doesn’t need more Leicester v Worcester games, or an expansion of the Anglo-Welsh Cup, extended domestic play-offs or even an expanded Pro12 comprising South African teams, certainly not at the expense of the Lions.

World Rugby should tell Premiership Rugby to take a hike. The Lions need to adopt the harder line stance of their tour manager John Spencer in saying if the English clubs don't want to release their players, then the Lions will go ahead without them.

The front of the NZ Herald on Sunday, which no more than Richie, McCafferty et al hasn't exactly had its finger on the pulse, declared 'Best of Five?'

Completing a volte face akin to Trump becoming a socialist/feminist/environmentalist, inside it asked: "Please can we have one more Test?'

And there you have it. What rugby needs is more Lions, not less.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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