Tipping Point: Irrelevance is the rock on which the Lions will perish
The game has moved on from this relic of flying the flag in far-flung bits of empire
Warren Gatland and the Lions singing from the same hymn sheet. Sure there’s a lot of money tied up in it. But at heart it’s a commercial con job. Photograph: Hannah Peters/AFP/Getty
So it’s begun again, this quadrennial Lions flog-fest, when three nations that largely define themselves by not being English join up with the old enemy in a specious hands-across-the-sea exercise to take on big bad rugger ogres at the other side of the world.
It’s sporting identity of the hemispheric kind, that we’re supposed to care about. It’s a joke really, but a tired one that can’t last much longer. This is one crock of corporate crap destined for the knackers yard.
Not that it’s likely to go with any dignity. The Lions is over a century old and remains a remunerative business. So the rugby establishment has a significant stake in continuing to promote this elaborate three-card-trick designed to entice those pliable sectors of the public flush enough to buy into it.
The real modern Lions success story is in ‘morkoting’ a spurious sense of ‘them and us’ to a rugby base which normally has very clear definitions of what constitutes ‘us’ and isn’t shy about proclaiming them.
Yet every four years that gets swept under the carpet and everyone becomes, well, supposedly brothers in British and Irish arms; except who’re we kidding.
There’s nothing like the hothouse of a Lions tour to incubate prejudices. Even when the side is winning, national cards get flung around like toys from a pram. Just look at the Sexton-Farrell thing brewing up nicely. Think Australia in 2013 after Warren Gatland dropped the blessed BOD.
Irish anguish then only proved how bogus the entire concept it is, rather like sport’s other major convoluted concoction, the Ryder Cup, when we’re all invited to suddenly become European for a week.
Neither are rooted in any real sense of place or identity but rely instead on a fairytale prop – the ogre across the sea.
‘Yerp’ only works if they’re underdogs against an ‘Ugly American’ cartoon. It’s nothing otherwise. So since America has never looked at its prettiest on a golf course – especially now with a quintessential golf bully in charge – the Ryder Cup’s commercial future has rarely looked better.
However the Lions USP has always been the idea that it requires the best of four countries up here to have any chance of competing with one down there. And that’s bad news, because it simply isn’t the case anymore.
Despite defeat to Ireland in Chicago last year, there’s still enough of an aura about the All Blacks to conjure that sense of collective underdog about this tour. But that’s not going to be the case next time round when the Lions tour South Africa.
Time was thoughts of playing on the high veldt against packs of mountainous Afrikaners fed on raw meat and bigotry could give could give even the most self-consciously ‘tough-goy’ the squirts.
Nowadays Italy can beat the Springboks – ITALY! How big and bad is the ogre iffa (sic) the pizza boys can turn it over. Then after that it’ll be back to Australia and it’s not like anyone’s peppering in dread of them these days either.
So by the time it’s New Zealand’s turn again in a dozen years something actually tangible to make people care about what happens to this outdated concept will have to have been found. And since there isn’t one what’s the point?
The Lions has proved resilient in the face of defeat, disdain and violence. It has scratched back at political opprobrium and fought off good taste. But irrelevance is the rock on which it will perish.
Because the hemispheric mystique is gone. When Lions of old took off on the boat for months on end it really was the rugby unknown. And by definition there was an unfamiliarity with exotic names on the other side of the world that piqued interest.
But professionalism has changed all that. Now top players are all pro wherever they are and follow the money wherever it is. Dan Carter can be seen on screen most weeks which is great in many ways except that familiarity doesn’t encourage mystery.
You can blame globalisation for this as well as everything else but that doesn’t stop it being inevitable. For better or worse those pass-the-port amateur days are gone for good. Investment demands return and TV investment demands incessant return.
And all of this means the Lions shtick is more and more irrelevant. It has had its day. The game has moved on from this relic and its gunboat undertone of flying the flag in far-flung bits of empire. Now it’s just increasingly getting in the way.
It happens. Change happens. Football used to have a Cup Winners Cup. Racing’s big deal used to be the Ascot Gold Cup. The GAA provincial titles used to mean something. The problem for the Lions is that its inherent artificiality makes it especially vulnerable.
Because who really cares. If Ireland beat one of the top Southern Hemisphere teams it means something. Ireland beat all three ogres in 2016. They’re not so big and bad anymore. The old inferiority complexes are gone. So what exactly is the Lions supposed to represent now?
Sure there’s a lot of money tied up in it. But it’s rooted in a vague bullshit notion of unity which gets further distilled through a vague sense of underdog and the hardest of hard sells. At heart it’s a commercial con-job.
It’s that hard-sell which will probably see the Lions limp further towards even greater irrelevance for another while yet. The opportunity for a timely and dignified mercy bullet will be spurned because too many suits have too much tied up in it.
But there are other kinds of investment too. And no matter how hard the sell there isn’t enough emotional investment to give this Lion a future. Sooner or later it will be put out of its misery.