Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every Friday for the Evening Post
If you didn’t already realise it, this is a ‘special’ rugby season.
For at the end of yet another far too long, gruelling campaign for our elite players, the walking wounded will form the British and Irish Lions tour party to New Zealand.
New Zealand is the definitive Lions tour. The Lions have only ever won one Test series in New Zealand in more than 100 years of trying and 11 separate tours.
There are no easy games to rack up cricket scores. It’s tough nature is what makes it a ‘special’ tour.
And as ever they will be facing a ‘Special’ All Blacks side.
So if there is one word that you will hear above all others when it comes to anything relating to the Lions – it’s special.
But are they? The Premiership, the Pro12, the autumn internationals and even the Six Nations will all be mere sideshows and trials this season, until the tour party is selected to go and do pretty much what they’ve always done in New Zealand – lose.
Add in the changing image that now characterises the Lions and forgive me if I’m more than a little underwhelmed by the prospect.
The Lions have been a great tradition and one of the few remaining ones left in the game at that.
But traditions in rugby have been steadily dying out since the game went professional and the end of the Lions is merely a matter of time.
Shoehorning invitational tours into an already crowded and dysfunctional international calendar is one thing. To then make it sound anything more than a predictable battering of the willing but weary is an insult to any British and Irish rugby fans’ intelligence.
If the Lions truly were the pinnacle of the British game then their importance would be evident in a scheduled season designed to give them the best chance of winning.
The best players would arrive fit and fresh for battle and the style of play and coaching would push British rugby forward for the next four years.
But they are pipe dreams.
Already the grumbling of club coaches has begun at the timing of the tour and the schedule.
The Lions’ first training sessions start before both the Premiership and Pro12 finals are played whilst the tour is an intense 10-game schedule squeezed into five and a bit weeks.
So let’s go and face the back-to-back world champions in their own back yard with an already beaten up squad short on preparation. Really? |Why bother?
But putting to one side the problems of making the Lions a valid competitive proposition, it’s the baggage that now surrounds these tours that has turned me off as a rugby fan. Quite frankly the Lions have become a circus.
Commercialism has put a high price on the Lions “brand”, its economic benefit to the Southern Hemisphere deemed more important than developing British rugby.
And all those involved know it and do very well out of it.
If that’s not the case then why else play a ridiculous pre-tour rout against a third-rate Barbarian side in Hong Kong four years ago, for example?
It was of course done to satisfy the whim of one of the major sponsors. Never mind the players and the effects of playing in extreme heat on a dodgy pitch, or the tradition of making the Lions meaningful.
The erosion of the Lions ethos started on the 1997 tour to South Africa, the first ‘professional’ Lions as we were constantly reminded.
I, like all fans, watched the series enthralled and then relived it time and again when the brilliant “Living with the Lions” DVD came out. It was a rugby fans’ must-have and must-watch.
From Jim Telfer’s iconic speeches, to beasting training sessions and the honest emotions of playercams delivered by John Bentley, the DVD showed what those involved went through to make the Lions successful. They also played an attacking style which gave you hope that British rugby might just begin to play its weight more generally.
But where the style was quickly forgotten, the behind-the-scenes DVD became a Lions Tour tradition – unfortunately.
The follow-up tour DVD’s were nowhere near as candid. Image-conscious players and coaches – whose behaviour was now increasingly regulated by agents – were all too aware of what they looked like and what was at stake.
Troop out the PR-honed answers and give nothing away.
After all, we don’t want any repeat of the fallout of the newspaper columns of Matt Dawson from the 2001 tour, or the accusations of PR spin that players like Gavin Henson put in their 2005 tour diaries after the last disastrous tour of NZ.
By the time of the 2013 Lions – one of the few successful tours in a history of mostly failure – all involved were aware of what to say and when to say it to an almost obsequious level.
The tourists were quick to remind us as often as possible how privileged they were to be Lions tourists.
That, and how special the Lions are.
Special as a money making entity perhaps but another Test whitewash will confirm that the Lions are sadly lacking as anything more.