Lions Review 2017: Tourists roar again to safeguard future tours
Gatland’s squad rose to the challenge by drawing series against vaunted All Blacks
The leading players from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland all regard representing the Lions as the pinnacle of their careers.
Ever since the advent of professionalism, Lions tours were seen as an anachronism and as the likely first victims of the transition from amateurism.
But rumours of their demise have consistently proven premature and the 2017 tour to New Zealand assuredly offered the most compelling case yet for their continuation. The only problem was it may have been too good.
Even when they were losing successive series in 2001, 2005 and 2009 they were the perfect tourists. Their fans came in droves, and the three Southern Hemisphere Unions, along with their countries’ economies, all dipped their bread hungrily. What wasn’t to like about them?
Then they started winning, but beating Australia 2-1 in 2013 was superseded by drawing the series in New Zealand.
The Lions had been given little hope. Taking on the five Super Rugby franchises and the Maoris as well as the All Blacks three times in a ten-match tour had been described as a “suicidal” itinerary by Graham Henry, who coached the Lions in 2001 against Australia and the All Blacks against the Lions four years later.
Yet all along Warren Gatland kept insisting that such a schedule would actually better prepare the tourists for the three-Test series, and so it proved. Furthermore, the vast majority of the games were entertaining and interesting. The Lions won five, drew two and lost three, and as well as the two draws, four of the others were one-score matches. Their 12-3 and 34-6 wins over the Crusaders and the Chiefs weren’t exactly dull either, any less than the All Blacks’ 30-15 win in the first Test.
As you’d expect from such a rugby-obsessed country, everywhere the Lions went they were the main gig in town. Every game was virtually a sell-out, and not alone are the host fans and Unions desperate to host them every 12 years, the home players are desperate for a once-in-a-career crack at the Lions.
Furthermore, the leading players from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland all regard representing the Lions as the pinnacle of their careers. Far from being curtailed to eight games and further hemmed into the calendar largely at the behest of English club owners, which would make it impossible for many players to stake Test claims, the Lions should be maintained to a minimum of ten matches.
For sure, they have become way too corporate, a financial juggernaut, albeit until such time as they negotiate a fairer share of the TV rights they are obliged to do so simply as a means of self-financing such an expensive monster.
Rather than assembling the squad the night before departure, so ensuring they arrived in a jet-lagged heap three days before their first match, as Gatland has stated the Lions should be afforded a full week’s preparation in the UK or Ireland, as well as a second full week on tour before their first game.
Clearly, it’s a different experience to be on a Lions tour than watching from home, and one understands that the Sky Sports hyperbole was simply too much for some Irish rugby fans to take.
But this writer has had something of a Road to Damascus like conversion after last summer’s trek. Lions tours are different. Akin to World Cups, every four years they break up what would otherwise be a monotonous groundhog year schedule. There’s also something quaint about retaining a throwback to a bygone era, which even dates back to the 19th century.
If anything, the 2017 tour raised the bar and the problem now will be how to follow that. Put another way, were the Lions to tour South Africa or Australia next summer, they really would be expected to win the Test series 3-0, and most of the other tour games as well.
Then again, so what if the last two tours, along with a shift in the balance of economic as much as rugby power, may spawn an era of relative of prosperity for the Lions on the pitch.
They were taking it on the chin there for quite a while.