Tipping Point: Toll taken by Lions tours is surely not sustainable
Test series against the All Blacks will be great sport but players cannot sustain the pressure
Jonathan Sexton, George North and Jonathan Davies dejected after defeat in the second Test to Australia in 2013. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
No such thing as a stupid question. That’s what they tell you in the journalism colleges anyway. Don’t be afraid to look like a fool, goes the theory. Better a fool than someone who is pretending to know too much.
So it was in that spirit that a few weeks back, I sat across from Paul O’Connell and asked him if, in all honesty now, there were players heading on the Lions trip who would rather, all things considered, be going on holiday on the last Monday in May rather than flying to the New Zealand winter to get seven shades kicked out of them for a month.
He was too polite to look at me with disdain so he went for something like pity instead. He answered in what can only be described, on listening back to the tape, as a horrified whisper.
Not even a little bit?
Surely there’s a small part of some of them?
“No. Sure you may as well go and play AIL rugby if that’s your attitude. There’s no one thinking like that.”
In retrospect, a three-time tourist and former Lions captain was maybe not the most open of doors to push on the subject. And obviously, if any of the 41 players leaving Heathrow Monday morning actually was thinking like that, Paul O’Connell wouldn’t be among the first million people they’d say it to.
Still, if we take it that 33-ish players would have more or less known from the Six Nations onwards that if they stayed fit they were on the plane, let’s say there were, for argument’s sake seven-to-10 close calls in the final squad. And let’s say the pool of players involved in those close calls amounts to roughly 20 guys across four countries. They’ve been emptied physically and mentally after a brutal season and pre-season training for the next one starts in eight weeks. Does anyone really believe that all 20 wanted to get the call?
Every four years, the usual hand-wringing over the future of the Lions comes around. And when it does, it is accepted by everyone that by far the overwhelming reason for its continued existence is the enormous commercial heft wielded by the Lions concept. TV companies make out like bandits, the visited countries – both their unions and their tourism sectors – do likewise.
The players’ basic fee this time around is £70,000 – up from £50,000 in 2013 – and the Lions chief executive John Feehan has already said that the bonus for a series win will rise from the £25,000-a-man that was awarded in 2013. These are not insignificant numbers.
You do wonder though if the time will come when players just flat out decide it isn’t worth it. For anyone recoiling in horror at the notion, let’s not forget that some players have already made that call. Steffon Armitage didn’t just leave an England career behind him when he moved to Toulon, he surely abandoned a Lions one as well. Leigh Halfpenny had to have it written into his last Toulon contract that he would be released to play for the Lions – how many players in years to come are going to go to that level of hassle?
The success of the Lions has always been predicated on a certain level of mystique. My bedside reading just now is When Lions Roared, a brilliant account of the 1971 tour by Tom English and Peter Burns. There’s a glorious passage from Barry John who, having returned to Wales as a Lions hero after the series win over the All Blacks, became beaten down by the fame it brought.
“Over the next nine months, I don’t think I averaged more than one meal a week at home. There was always something to go to. I started to get bored of myself. People were paying hundreds of pounds to for me to go to these events and I was telling the same stories four times a week. It was so bloody repetitive. When I opened a bank in north Wales for Forward Trust, a woman curtsied as I approached her. Everything got out of control.”
The stories around that tour and the 1974 one to South Africa are what built the modern Lions. John talks of seeing the Lions on the front page of the New York Times on a refuelling stop on the way home, of having to hide in a ladies’ toilet with Kate Adie in the airport on their return because it was the only place quiet enough to do an interview. Beating the All Blacks turned them into the Beatles for a time.
Mystique. Modern life doesn’t really allow for it anymore. Everything moves on so quickly. Next game, next player, next sport, next season. The Lions travel Monday, arrive on Wednesday, play Saturday. That’s not just indecent haste, it’s practically inhuman.
And for what? Who remembers? Top of your head – name the four Irishmen who played in the Test decider against Australia last time out. O’Connell was injured by then and Brian O’Driscoll was famously dropped. Most people would remember Johnny Sexton as a starter and probably guess Seán O’Brien too and likely Conor Murray as a sub. But how many would be able to recall that Tommy Bowe not only started but was the only Irish man to play all 80 minutes?
The Lions is magnificent sport and unmissable television and a commercial behemoth. But it depends on a conveyor belt of players who are already variously exhausted, broken and protective of their bodies, not to mention increasingly suspicious of offering them up for ever more commercial exploitation.
Long term, it’s surely not sustainable. It can’t be.