With the Lions tour coming up this summer, Conal Cahill and Niamh O’Regan debate whether it’s worth the fuss.
For (895 Words)
By Conall Cahill
This jersey isn’t made for everyone. It is earned. Saved for the very best. No player will touch it until they are chosen. Until they have earned it. Until that moment, it is untouchable.
In five months’ time, I will name my squad. A group of men who reach further, dig deeper, push harder. The jersey will be theirs to wear with pride…”
Five months! And that’s until he’s naming the squad!
This Oscar-worthy performance from British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland came as part of a promotional video ahead of the release of their official jersey in November (theme: ‘The Untouchable Jersey’). The jersey, when finally ‘released’, looked much the same as it always does. It was red, for example.
Admittedly there wasn’t a big public song and dance about the big jersey ‘reveal’. Nonetheless it is just part of the over-hyping of an institution that – while undoubtedly entertaining – can never mean anywhere near as much to us as watching our province or country play.
Last March — over fourteen months before the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand is due to begin — Stephen Jones, this country’s least favourite rugby pundit, was selecting his ‘as it stands’ Lions squad. Jones had another crack at it three months later, before going at it again in September. Three times in seven months, a year before the tour starts, one of rugby’s leading writers – in a Sunday paper, too, so arguably with more choice of ‘content’ – tries to figure out who will be on the plane.
Mercifully most publications waited until after the Autumn internationals before piecing together their own squads, but why even then? Perhaps the reality is that articles about prospective future squads always go down well with readers.
“Ireland’s one victory over South Africa in their summer tour this year will arguably trump any manner of Lions triumph in New Zealand.”
Whatever sport is the subject of such debate – whether it is GAA, soccer, rugby or otherwise – there is always a fascination with trying to second guess a manager as to what their squad selection will be, an enjoyable “I told you so” moment with mates if your own selection proves correct over theirs.
So when the Sunday Times or the Telegraph announce their ‘Lions for 2017’ they do so more to tap into this common fascination rather than out of any sense of urgency or real importance.
Among those to criticise the Lions tour in its current format are Saracens head coach Mark McCall and Wasps director of rugby Dai Young, both unhappy with the insane demands the tour places on players (who are already broken from a hard season of club and international rugby). This is coupled with the fact that clubs are left to patch players back up upon their return from Lions duty.
Players, however, are likely to continue voicing their approval for the tour. Why wouldn’t they? As well as a tasty £70,000 (before bonuses) that each will reportedly receive for taking part in the tour, it is undoubtedly a huge honour to be picked as a Lion; it is a title of great prestige.
The tour offers players the chance to learn from and get to know players from other countries – what makes them tick, how they prepare for matches – and each Lions campaign always sees the springing up of friendships between players who had only ever been foes.
On top of all that, any player who makes it into the Lions squad is by definition an incredible competitor, one who will relish the opportunity to compete at the very highest level against the best opposition available. At the moment, that’s a spot on the Lions team to play New Zealand.
But that’s all for the players. All those brilliant prizes are up for grabs for Johnny Sexton, Leigh Halfpenny, even Dylan Hartley if he behaves himself in the Six Nations. But can those of us outside the white lines really find enough to get excited about that justifies the months of build-up? Yes, the Lions tours can be brilliant to watch – who can forget the drama in Pretoria in 2009 – but any enjoyment from victory can never match what most of us feel when our country win.
Ireland’s one victory over South Africa in their summer tour this year will arguably trump any manner of Lions triumph in New Zealand this summer (even a series win). Most of us cheer on the Lions firstly because of the Irish representatives, secondly because of a desire to see big Southern Hemisphere sides beaten and thirdly, perhaps (at a stretch), out of some strange Anglo/Celtic bond that develops around Lions time (probably more because of the ‘us and them’ dynamic than anything else).
It isn’t the same fiery passion that grips us during the Six Nations and most of us won’t be getting the same knot in our stomach in the weeks before the Lions tour as we have now in the run-up to Ireland’s game against Scotland on February 4th.
So, as is my democratic right, I am formally announcing a peaceful boycott of all Lions-related debate.
Rory Best has to start, though. Surely?
Against (808 words)
By Niamh O’Regan
Is the Lions series hyped? Yes. Is it over hyped? Not at all. Every competition has a certain element of hype to it, that’s what builds the excitement. Over hyping is making something out to be bigger and better than it really is, for it to end in disappointment – something which is unlikely to apply to the 2017 Lions tour, considering the calibre of the players on offer. Late November may appear to be a bit soon to discuss a competition that doesn’t start until the summer, but there are multiple considerations.
Although the first match is on the 3rd of June there’s training beforehand, and not long before the selection is the Six Nations. There are normally around 37 places on the squad. Those places will be filled from a pool of approximately 165 players.
On top of that there’s the 22 men chosen for each of the matches, and each of the many potential combinations needs to work as well as each other for optimum consistent performance. It’s perfectly natural that this lends itself to discussion for a lengthy period of time.
Earlier in the season is also an opportune period to discuss players because of two potential issues: injuries to big players and the emergence of new talent. Which players might unexpectedly stake a claim to be in Warren Gatland’s squad? How will the Lions deal with injuries to certain key figures? These are all pertinent questions that lend themselves to discussion ahead of the Six Nations.
“This is coupled with the fact that clubs are left to patch players back up upon their return from Lions duty.”1
Johnny Sexton and George North, for instance, are great players, but have proven susceptible to head injuries. With ten matches being played over the course of five weeks in the Lions series (though teams will obviously be altered), choosing a player not only comes down to their strength, skill and stamina, but also on their ability to withstand and survive Kiwi ferocity. Discussing player selection early cannot be merely reduced to a hype build, it’s good management and good planning.
Media pundits are not the only ones discussing who might make the team, the same discussion happens in pubs and living rooms around the four nations involved. The fact that seven months out from the competition there was discussion about which players might be selected is testament to its popularity and tenure. Fans know the competition is coming, they want to know who it is that will be competing.
Thousands follow the tour and travel to the Southern Hemisphere. To suggest that there aren’t fans of the Lions is ludicrous: without fans (such as the forty thousand who travelled to Australia in 2013) the series couldn’t survive. Is the series as important to them as the Six Nations? No, probably and understandably not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It’s not your national team or your club playing, but the Lions will perhaps include players from both, and fans want to support them. And of course fans want to see their favourite players stick it to the opposition – but, when it boils down to it, it is the overall team that you want to see triumph.
If that were not the case, the Lions as a spectacle would consist of people screaming at the telly, demanding two men do all the work. Moreover, when the opposition faced is the might of Southern Hemisphere countries – with (despite certain events in Chicago last year) their grip on rugby union as tight as ever – the desire to win grows stronger still.
One of the most successful and memorable tours was the 1974 tour in South Africa, the Lions winning all three matches against their hosts. While great rugby was played (or so us young ones are told), the overarching memory associated with the tour is the “99 call” (this was a tactic set out by captain Willie John McBride to avoid intimidation of the Lions by the Springboks. If a Lion got into a scuffle, McBride would yell “99!” and every Lion would run in to support their colleague).
In 1974 a try was also worth four points, you couldn’t lift in the line-out and concussion assessment was barely a concept, let alone a rule. The point is that yes, rugby has changed. It has developed, like almost all sports do. There is no denying that the Lions are a commercial success, they are undoubtedly a mega brand, but that doesn’t mean the tour has lost the excitement it had back in 1974.
The Lions won their 2013 tour in Australia (2-1). If the Autumn Internationals are anything to go by, New Zealand will have a strong side – but not an impenetrable one. Indeed, a side that could certainly be penetrated by a Lions team, agonisingly chosen many months in advance. It’s a fascinating prospect; some might even say it will be worth the hype