The British and Irish Lions will tour New Zealand in 2017
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 said, ‘even if you just look at them in terms of being a money-making brand, they’re phenomenal’.
Indeed New Zealand will be rubbing its hands with glee, after the 2005 tour brought $135 million to its national economy. 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 too are in need of a financial injection.
Therefore has the entire Lions phenomenon, with all its much talked about tradition, simply boiled down to money? Results from recent tours would suggest so. Since 1995, the Lions have only won two tour series. One of which was against the worst Australian team in recent memory, while the more recent tours have also brought with them questions marks over the relevancy of the Lions.
If the Lions are not competitive do they remain relevant? Robbie Deans stated before his World XV clashed with South Africa 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 preperation. 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 international organising body of the game in the southern hemisphere], 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.
Such a situation is likely to continue however, as clubs now hold much power over scheduling. As a result, 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 its 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