Lions Tour – A story worth the wait
With an ever changing landscape as the pandemic rages on, one of the game's most iconic institutions seems under threat. Should they stay in the UK? Is it France? Or does that undermine the sanctity of all it stands for?
“Lions…., Lions…., Lions…”, echoed around the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria. The atmosphere was white hot on this particular South African Winter’s day in 2009. The world champion Springboks were 1-0 up against Paul O’Connell’s tourists after the “Beast” deconstructed the British & Irish Lions with a scrumming masterclass the week before in Durban. The Lions had come into the series with questions hanging over the future viability of the Lions after some substandard results from previous tours, this tour thankfully ended that conversation for good.
The second Test was officially the greatest live game I have ever watched, I have been very fortunate to attend some outstanding Test matches from a World Cup Final to the Springboks v The All Blacks, Tri-Nations games, Scotland v England, Six Nations games, Barbarians matches as well as many provincial and club finals and none of these can match this day. This particular Test was as brutal as you would see – perfectly summed up in the infamous Rossouw & O’Driscoll collision where nobody was giving an inch and the bone-crunching impact seemed to be felt by all watching. There were tries, some great running rugby, huge collisions all being played out in this cauldron of a sold-out stadium, all the ingredients for a classic Test match. Both sides playing outstanding rugby with a dramatic late penalty by Morne Steyn sealing a Springbok win and series victory. It was an absolute privilege to be in attendance.
There is something extremely special about the British & Irish Lions, whether it is the history and tradition of the Lions, whether it is the fact that four countries come together to combine as one after knocking lumps out of each other year after year. Whether it is the fact that it is the rarity of the event in occurring every four years against a rugby calendar which seems to be much of the same, or just the plain fact that it is the last great rugby tour left, this is a tradition and tour that needs to be conserved. It has to be.
The Test series is key and let’s be honest, Test rugby is all about results, however with the Lions there seems to be more to it than just that. A Lions tour cannot only be judged on Tests, it equates to a good book – the actual story is so important not just the ending. Whether it is an unlikely hero like Jeremy Davidson or Tom Smith on the 1997 tour, a fresh-faced O’Driscoll carving through the Wallaby backline in 2001, the 99 Call by arguably the greatest Test side of all time on the unbeaten 1974 tour to South Africa, or the classic controversial 2017 drawn series with the All Blacks, there are so many great memorable rugby moments involving this iconic side.
There are many threads to the Lions story, there are the mid-week or dirt tracker games – where local players get a chance to face an international side by representing their provincial side whether that be the Free State Cheetahs, the Hurricanes and Waratahs or teams like the Maori All Blacks or SA “A” providing a “fourth or unofficial” Test on tour. The true rugby fan still longs for the traditional tours, this is well documented however has become less likely due to professionalism, this has not stopped the demand and want for these types of tours.
A vital cog in the success of a Lions tour are the fans, there are, arguably no better fans without exception than Lions fans. The “sea of red” usually means away games feel like home games as these vocal supporters in their local club jerseys, replica red shirts and fancy dress outfits make the tour an unforgettable experience. The mixing of home and away fans is so special, whether in and around the stadiums over a pint, in fan parks with a song or two, a bit of banter at local rugby clubs or organised lunches & events. Some of my great memories include chatting to Fergus Slattery, Scott Hastings, Jason Leonard among other legends down at my local rugby club on the 1997 tour. Stories are shared and access to legends of the game create lifetime memories, the locals share their knowledge of where to eat and drink and where to visit as well as giving their opinion on their side and why they will win the series. Friendships of a lifetime no matter what side you support are forged while encountering the beauty of the host nation at the same time as adding revenue to the greater rugby system and host nation.
The fact that the tour has already been decreased by two games from ten games to eight is far from ideal and should certainly be reviewed for the next tour as the Lions need sufficient preparation to make it a fair contest, however this is a conversation for another day as there are currently bigger challenges at play.
In the current climate there are many things being discussed and supposedly on the table, from the tour going ahead with no fans, the Springboks playing the Lions in the UK (this would then be a Springbok tour and not a Lions tour), the Lions going on tour to France among other suggestions. While there is the odd positive in some of the ideas tabled there is no doubt that a Lions tour with fans to the powerhouses of the Southern Hemisphere is the only way to go.
It is a tour that is worth waiting for, the Springboks the current World Champions have waited their 12 years for a crack at the Lions and it is a once in a career opportunity to face them, players make career defining decisions around a Lions tour. On the flip-side the Lions get an opportunity to topple the World Champions on their own soil in the famous red jersey and is certainly a career highlight opportunity.
It is South Africa’s turn to host, showcase the country and let the Springbok & Lions players, management and fans experience and write their own story, whether this is delayed to later this year or next then so be it. Most importantly it needs to be safe but it is imperative that the tour is not diluted and goes ahead in its original format true to tradition with fans. This chapter of the story is one worth waiting for.