Maybe Gatland did Sexton a favour leaving him out of daft rugby safari
In 1974 the rugby was thrilling: it felt spontaneous and raw. It couldn’t happen today
Johnny Sexton during the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand in 2017. A year later he was named World Player of the Year. Photograph: Getty Images
The British and Irish Lions: the every-four-years team is one of the few thriving remnants of the crumbling empire and if there is a sort of daftness behind the decision to tour South Africa in this pandemic summer, then the history of Lions tours has always been informed by a glorious daftness.
The announcement of the squad this week was dressed up in hokey razzmatazz that put the recent Oscars bash to shame in terms of showbiz chutzpah and self-regard. The first team of astronauts chosen to fly to the moon was announced with less ceremony than the Lions destined for South Africa.
For the Irish, the feeling of being left smarting by curious Lions ‘omissions’ is a birthright and this year was nothing new. The exclusion of Johnny Sexton, arguably Ireland’s greatest and certainly her grouchiest ever number 10, by Warren Gatland and the selection committee feels like a stinging rejection.
How can the guy who was the world rugby player of the year in 2018 not even be considered out of 37 players in just four countries this week? Well, he was younger then, goes the argument. Yeah but not that much bloody younger! All the provincial rivalry and petty grudges go out the window when it comes to the Lions: you could hear the aggrieved tone in both Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll – who has also felt first-hand Gatland’s implacable nature when it comes to the unsentimental business of picking Lions teams.
It would have been wonderful to see Sexton, 36 this summer, featuring in a Test match against the world champions in what is the closing phase of his career. But when he sits down and thinks about the itinerary and the reality of what awaits this year’s squad, he may privately conclude that Gatland did him a favour.
The main reason it is happening is money– television, sponsorship and, for the alarmingly reduced income streams of the leading rugby countries
As always, it’s a crazy, brutal undertaking. A 10-day training camp in Jersey before the first warm-up game, against Japan in Murrayfield in late June. Then the long flight south but without the accompaniment of the 20,000 cavalier fan base from the four countries. Just 37 pro rugby players and the backroom staff on a rugby safari.
They play their first game, against Stormers in Cape Town the following Saturday. The tour incorporates nine games spanning most of the summer: the final Test does not take place until August 7th in Cape Town, meaning the squad will get home in time to put their gear in the tumble drier before it’s time to turn their minds to the club season.
Just like the Olympics in Tokyo, which remains on schedule despite a moral debate over whether it should go ahead, it is difficult just now for sports fans to place themselves in the mindset of adventure and escapism required to care about the Lions.
It is, after all, a glorified challenge series. Its image has been hijacked by commercial sponsors. Just like the Olympics, the main reason it is happening is money– television, sponsorship and, for the alarmingly reduced income streams of the leading rugby countries, continuity: to keep the story, started in 1888, going.
The Lions tours are a vital revenue source to both the touring nations and the host countries, with Australia and New Zealand reporting $40 million profit after the last two tours. The prospect of a closed-doors tour this summer has led to glum forecasts for South Africa’s economy.
The preservation of the appeal of the Lions tour – an eccentric, wildly ambitious and impractical proposition during the 100 years of amateurism – through the transparently commercial imperatives of professionalism has been one of the great tricks by rugby.
The Lions is not much a team as an idea. There is something perverse about selecting a team from four countries habitually given to quarrelling – at rugby, at politics, at life. And once that team is settled on, it exists only for a couple of months every four years. But for its lifespan and because of the absurd length of the tour it becomes something more than a team.
When players had jobs, there was something quixotic about the notion of a bunch of guys departing for New Zealand or South Africa just for the lark. Even after rugby became the job of the players and even with the hefty financial bonus of being picked, the Lions tour always felt extra-curricular: a venture that was often the pinnacle of a player’s career but also a rare opportunity to tap into some of the lost camaraderie and fun of the amateur era.
There’s a punishing relentlessness about the rugby life, with the hectic club and international schedule meaning that the fiercest onfield rivals rarely get to sit down and find out what the other is about.
In the mid 1970s, the BBC filmed material for a terrific documentary, Clash of the Titans, celebrating the adventures of the 1974 Lions in South Africa, the most macho and lawless rugby of them all. “That was some hit you gave me,” Gordon Brown told a glaring John Williams after having his jaw knocked out of place during the second Test. “It was meant to be,” Williams replied.
The fighting was uncontained and the rugby thrilling: it felt spontaneous and raw. It couldn’t happen today. But it’s the hope of witnessing something comparable to the scenes on those wheat-gold fields of those celebrated Test matches that has helped to convince tens of thousands of rugby supporters to shell out a king’s ransom to follow the team tour after tour.
They can’t do that this year and right now, in early May, it is hard to foresee this version of the Lions summer has anything more than a pale imitation. But wait for the whistle. And for the players who have made the plane, that jersey is one that will matter long after their rugby days have ended.