Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lions led by money men....

I’ll be watching the telecast from Durban on Saturday – of course I will you can’t break the habit of a lifetime. But I find the whole bonanza of a modern Lions tour grotesquely overblown and rather vulgar.

I reckon that I was at the very last Lions international that really mattered – at Ellis Park back in 1997. In those days the Lions were still called the “British Lions” of course – the correct colloquialism for what was, and always had been, the “British Isles” rugby team. And in those days rugby was still (mostly) an amateur sport. The excitement came from the fact that top class rugby would be played by two teams most of whose players played only for the love of the game. And the team had still its traditional name without anybody, least of all the Irish players, really caring that some ignoramus might think that the “British” in the “British Lions” referred to a country rather than to geography. But now so as not to upset a few dim-witted Irish nationalists we have to use the ghastly solecism “British and Irish Lions”. What nonsense.

The Lions famously won that tour in 1997, but they haven’t won since (one lone Test in Australia aside) and the last tour to New Zealand was an embarrassment. But whilst the tours have become more and more one-sided the hype and the commercialisation has escalated. The replica Lions shirt in the RFU shop costs £99.99 - a mark-up, I suspect, of perhaps £95 over the production costs. And the advertisement from Thomas Cook offered tours starting from £1999 to see one "Test" and £2499 to see two. And that pretty much sums up the rationale for this year's commercial bonanza in South Africa.

The Lions in 2005 were not humiliated by the All Blacks because of the deficiencies of Alastair Campbell nor by the mistakes of Clive Woodward. They were beaten because a southern hemisphere side will never again be beaten by a rag, tag and bobtail assemblage of British Isles players, however individually talented these players may be.

The South Africans are full time professionals both individually and as a unit. The hastily assembled Lions cannot possibly be expected to gel together as efficiently and skilfully as the Springboks – they will be lucky to avoid defeat by less than twenty points in any of their matches against the Boks.

In the days of amateur international rugby there was a logic and, yes, a romance about the Lions that led to some heroic achievements. But in the professional era a side which plays together continuously for a year or more, as the South Africans will have done, will have a huge edge over a mishmash of players who cannot possibly be as familiar with one another as their opponents will be.

The only justification for the continued existence of the Lions is the commercial bonanza that a Lions tour creates. For me that is insufficient reason for the tour to go ahead - and certainly there is no case at all for international caps to continue to be awarded for these one-sided and irrelevant matches.

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