Much has been made of the Lions’ commitment to off-pitch pleasantries since landing in New Zealand last week.
Seldom is a day not punctuated by a school visit or official welcome and woe betide a tourist forced to go 24 hours without respectfully receiving some manner of Haka. Warren Gatland has spoken at length about the importance of appreciating Kiwi culture and even prescribed certain films for the squad to watch. This is partly to appreciate the scale of the task before them, but also mend bridges damaged, and in some cases obliterated, during the infamously acrimonious 2005 tour. However, given the acrimony directed the Lions’ way by many British and Irish pundits, perhaps similar efforts are required on home soil as well.
Much of the media has been at pains to label the Lions as outdated and little more than frivolous financial folly. They frequently refer to how a team comprised of four nations is a non-entity, but such critiques do a disservice to rugby fans, and are excessively forgiving of how the game is marketed in Europe.
Today we live in a world more interconnected than ever. The last 70 years have seen Europe become more united and committed to common ideals than ever before. The EU has dissuaded members from mounting mass military operations against each other since 1945, has fostered a period of spiralling economic growth to raise living standards to unprecedented levels and just last year the EU was the driving force behind the Paris Agreement, which bound all but two nations on earth to tackling climate change – a figure that has of course reached three since Mr. Trump’s latest conflagration.
Even among nations with particularly acrimonious histories, new levels of understanding pervade. Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland in 2011 is often touted as an example of such, as England and Ireland’s cultural ties grow ever stronger.
All this make a mockery of the notion that, for example, Welsh supporters can’t rouse themselves to cheer for Mako Vunipola to keep the scrum steady or for Stuart Hogg to be at his ruthless best. By the same token, while Irish uproar was palpable when BOD was dropped for the final Test four years ago, no doubt Irish rugby supporters felt more than a pang of discomfort upon hearing that Billy Vunipola would be ruled out of the forthcoming tour.
Other sports provide ample examples of the flexibility of sports supporters. Lest we forget that a Northern Irish resident is expected to support Northern Ireland in soccer, the island of Ireland in rugby and the United Kingdom when the Olympics roll around. The British and Irish Lions have at least been consistent in what they expect of their supporters, and at least our fictitious fan is accommodated by the team’s name, as opposed to being lumped under the questionable term ‘Team GB’ as is the case in athletics.
Just as the notion that the Lions is an overtly manufactured franchise is ignorant of practices in other sports. The argument that it purely exists as a revenue generation tool ignores much of the practices of today’s European rugby horizon. Wasps RFC have relocated numerous times and changed their name twice since the advent of professionalism, often in efforts to attract more supporters.
Fans of Leinster and Munster are frequently bombarded with advertisements proclaiming their rivalry to be one of the ages, as posters depict men that appear to hail from the Victorian era playing champagne rugby of a bygone era. Lest we forget, the Leinster-Munster rivalry only came into being 20 years ago with the dawn of professionalism. Club rugby enjoyed pride of place before that, although many are blissfully unaware of it now. Black and white images of Cork Constitution or Stradbrook RFC, stalwarts of yesteryear, are likely closer to the truth but much less lucrative to the powers that be.
Indeed, the very competition modern clubs compete in, the European Champions Cup, has been totally re-imagined in recent years purely to placate the powers of English and French clubs.
This is not to say that these institutions lack relevance or are excessively contorted by capitalism. They are professional bodies and must raise sufficient income to remain viable in the modern rugby climate. To argue that the Lions, and the infinite hoards of heritage that goes with them, are defunct for making efforts in a similar direction is absurd.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena
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