All eyes on the Lions in NZ
Despite allegiances, the world of rugby will be glued during the whole month of June and the first two weekends of July to events in New Zealand where the British & Irish Lions go on a 10-match tour with the hope of repeating what they’ve only managed once: beat the All Blacks in a test series.
It hasn’t happened since 1971 with a Lions side that had some of the best-ever amateur players, the likes of Willie John McBride, Mervyn Davies, Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mike Gibson, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams, all household names in a world with no colour TV.
In fact, despite playing test-series since 1888, they are one of the test teams with the worst losing ratio (series won are ‘71 to NZ, ‘74 and ‘97 to South Africa, 1989 and 2013 in Australia). Despite this, they generate one of the biggest businesses in world sport.
The Lions are as much a brand as an aspirational team. The brand took off after the game went professional and the world borders becoming more accessible due to travel. South Africa in 1997 had a huge British support and from there on, fans have multiplied every four years when they go on tour, on a rotation basis to either of the three above-mentioned countries.
Argentina was visited in the early 1900s the first time to celebrate 100 years of the May Revolution, the second in 1927 and the third in 1936. Historians often debate how official these tours were. They were.
Prior to the last tour of New Zealand, twelve years ago, a warm-up game was organized in Cardiff against a Puma team that had so many players missing due to club commitments (those were the days) and injuries, that it was an experimental side. That the game went into the 92nd minute until Jonny Wilkinson managed a penalty to draw it 25-all was hard to understand. The Lions were trampled in NZ, losing the series 3-0.
The 2017 squad was announced with fanfare in London on Wednesday and by all accounts it is a very strong squad, capable of competing against the best. Will they be able to beat the All Blacks at least twice in three tests to claim the series? I have serious doubts.
To make things harder for themselves, their tour schedule will see them start against a NZ Barbarians side and they will then play the five Super Rugby franchises and the Maori All Blacks as well as the three tests.
This is certainly survival of the fittest and it remains to be seen if after a long season, Lions players can raise their game even higher to achieve what would be the ultimate: win a series in New Zealand.
Being selected to represent the best of the British Isles and Ireland is the pinnacle of each player’s career and that alone should be sufficient motivation, but when you are fighting against teams from the best rugby nation in the world twice a week, in weather that might not be the best, and with the pressure of almost 60,000 fans that are said to be travelling, it is certainly a big ask. It will be, undoubtedly, a tour to remember.
For us outsiders, it will be a grandiose opportunity to enjoy rugby at the highest level. As they say: a Lions tour is only to Rugby World Cup a second.