Pundit Arena lead rugby writer Alan Drumm argues that greed has put the Lions’ brand at risk and in danger of humiliation.
After the tour schedule for the 2017 Lions Tour was announced, I found myself remembering what Sean Fitzpatrick had said after the Lions had lost the series against South Africa in 2009. The All Black legend described the Lions as ‘probably the most powerful brand in world rugby’. Continuing in this vein he added, ‘even if you just look at them in terms of being a money-making brand, they’re phenomenal’.
After hosting the World Cup in 2011, posting its worst end of year financial results in 2009/10 and finding it increasingly difficult to stem the flow of players to Europe, the All Blacks are in need of a financial injection. Consequently, not only will the NZRU be rubbing their hand’s with glee, but after the 2005 tour brought $135 million to its national economy, so will the government of New Zealand.
Meanwhile back at home, Sky’s hype train will go into overdrive, with pundits who should know better telling subscribers of the pay-per-view channel that the Lions can in fact claim a series win, despite the difficulty of the schedule.
Moreover, although Mark McCafferty, Mark Mcall and Dai Young hit out at the length of the Lions tour citing concerns for player welfare on BBC Radio Five Live, they seemed more worried about the impact it will have on the Premiership.
Indeed, the mask seemed to slip in an interview with The Guardian, when McCafferty went so far as to ask if there is any need to ‘play that number of midweek games when the economics are driven off the back of three Tests in the main?’
The problem here is that if the Lions struggle to find time to train or play warm up games, and they will struggle to compete against well prepared professional sides. In this sense, while it is not yet known where the Lions will feature on any new global calendar, the future looks ominous.
Those negotiations will have a massive impact upon the future of the Lions, and will raise two serious questions about their role in the modern game. Key among which is their raison d’etre, put simply, has the entire Lions phenomenon, with all it’s much talked about tradition, simply boiled down to money?
In July of last year, former Samoan Centre, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapulo, criticised the Lions for not scheduling a fixture against any Pacific Island Nation, labelling the touring side ‘rugby’s most stuck up team’.
The British Lions are the richest rugby team in the world. Now that theyve decided to not play in the Pacific, theyre also the most stuck up
— fuimaono-sapolu (@Eliota_Sapolu) July 21, 2015
As a gesture supporting the development of Pacific island rugby, stopping off in Fiji or Samoa for a one-off test match would have proven to be very popular. However, it would seem far more likely at this point that Lions organisers would prefer to see a future fixture in North America rather than the Pacific.
Although Fuimaono-Sapulo’s outburst may have been poorly articulated on Twitter, there is certainly a basis for his argument following the Lions’ decision to open their 2013 tour with a fixture against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.
From the outset, there were question marks over the Lions’ rational, as the fixture was rumoured to have been organised at the behest of sponsors HSBC. There was even talk of Hong Kong’s Rowan Varty, only being included in the Barbarians team due to pressure from the banking giant.
In the lead up to the game there was much debate surrounding the welfare of the players, due to the heat and humidity on the island. There was even a worry that the the match would take place outside the IRB’s guidelines for match conditions, which stated that games should ideally not be staged where the temperature are more than 30C or humidity above 60 per cent.
To combat the intense conditions, it was agreed to allow the players avail of two water breaks during the course of the game. Nevertheless, Adam Jones described the conditions in which the Lions trained in Hong Kong as ‘horrific’ and claimed they made him ‘feel sick’.
The game itself was a non event, with the Lions winning 59-8. Despite the best efforts of the commercial interests, it was also far from a sell out, with only 28,643 supporters attended a game in a stadium that had a capacity of 40,000. With tour packages incorporating the Barbarians fixture costing up to £13,999, Lions supporters simply stayed away.
If the Lions are not competitive do they remain relevant?
Robbie Deans stated before his World XV clashed with South Africa last summer that ‘the days of invitational teams doing well in the era of professional rugby are gone, it is very tough for a group that gets thrown together up against a group that has history and tradition and a lot of motivation’.
Deans’ statement is particularly pertinent to the Lions, as the last number of tours suffered from a lack time necessary to allow for proper integration and modern preparation. Prior to the 2013 tour, the then team manager, Andy Irvine, stated; ‘that we have to make sure that the Lions have proper preparation time. That means the four home unions sitting down with Sanzar, the clubs and the International Rugby Board to make sure that we get it right’.
Indeed before the 2013 tour to Australia, Warren Gatland was without the players he had selected from Ulster, Leinster, Leicester and Northampton, as the Lions began training.
In 2005 a similar situation unfolded, when Stephen Jones and Gareth Thomas were not released by Clermont and Tolouse in time for them to travel with the rest of the squad to New Zealand. In 2009, Northampton even refused to allow Euan Murray attend the team photograph due to their European Challenge Cup final against Bourgoin.
Although Leigh Halfpenny has secured a release from Toulon, next summer the Lions will depart without the players who feature in the Pro 12 and Premiership finals, hardly an ideal scenario for Gatland.
Moreover, given McCafferty’s recent comments, the likelihood of players being withheld and tours shortened has increased as clubs now hold much power over scheduling. Consequently, the very existence of the Lions now seems to be based on their financial pulling power rather than their ability to compete. This leaves a bad taste and Sky’s coverage of the Lions only further sours it.
In place of necessary criticism of the tourist’s performances in the past, Sky wear out already tiresome clichés in their drive to hype up the tour. The broadcaster drives the historical narrative of the Lions to the point of annoyance, using it as a unique selling point. Such is their focus on the collective nature of the side, their coverage seems false and forced. They seem to believe that, by virtue of being selected for the side, a team spirit will transcend history and automatically took root.
It leaves me with the feeling that the institution has sold out. So has the Lions Wine Club advertised on their website.
The Lions therefore exist in a strange place. Professionalism has on one hand made it difficult for the Lions to compete on the playing field, while on the other, professional marketing has ensured their very existence. However they cannot continue to burn the candle at both ends, as another series defeat in 2017 may bring questions as to the economic relevance of the side.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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