“WHOEVER AGREED TO that schedule from the Lions point of view, it’s crazy. I don’t see how you could even win that.” – Warren Gatland on the 2017 Lions tour, October 2015.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we had the ability to go to New Zealand and win. If there are players or coaches who believe we haven’t got a chance, put your hands up now and don’t get on the plane.” – Warren Gatland on the 2017 Lions Tour, this week.
And who could blame the re-appointed British & Irish Lions coach for his change of heart?
It wouldn’t really have done for Gatland to declare on his first day back in the job that, with the onerous match schedule which starts just a week after the Premiership and PRO12 finals, the Lions frankly needn’t bother travelling to New Zealand at all; that the only chance of a first series win against the All Blacks since 1971 would be if they actually played against those 1971 All Blacks — now old and grey, but admittedly bearing a grudge.
But, of course, this is not 1971. The Lions Tour is the latest treasured relic from rugby’s amateur past to be squeezed and distorted by the self-interest of its professional present.
For rugby fans — not just Northern Hemisphere ones — the Lions represents one the sport’s most glorious things, a quasi-mythical concept that has another layer of legend added to it every four years.
At its basic level, it’s a Dream Team. You get to see the best players from the four nations involved play together. And then there’s the history. Six-week voyages by ship, Willie John’s ’99′ call, Jim Telfer’s oratory and all that.
But the Lions is also about money — lots and lots of money.
Want to know why New Zealand Rugby have scheduled ten tough games into just over five wintry weeks, including matches against their five Super Rugby franchises on top of the test series against the greatest team in the world? Check the books.
NZR posted a loss of NZ$463,000 (€302,000) in 2015, partially due to it being a Rugby World Cup year, meaning a loss of touring test match revenues. However, NZR expects to post a significant loss again in 2016, as it increases funding to its struggling provincial unions.
Despite this commitment, NZR expects to return to surplus by 2020. And this is where the Lions come in.
“If we’re to retain our best players and coaches, run the most exciting rugby competitions in the world, and inspire the young to embrace our game,” said chief executive Steve Tew, announcing their most recent financial results, “we must continue to expand New Zealand Rugby’s revenue base.”
So there it is. The immediate future of New Zealand rugby — from the youngsters up to the top players and coaches — depends on commercialising the magic of the Lions tour to the greatest extent possible.
You can’t blame them, in a way. Despite being the game’s greatest force, they are so far away from its European financial epicentre that they are forced to view the Lions tour as a plump, meaty cash cow.
Yet just what sort of patched up Lions squad will the locals and travelling fans be watching by the time the tests arrive?
Two related themes run in the background to all this. Calls for a global rugby calendar and fears over player welfare have both been given lip service recently.
With the entire international rugby fixture structure up for discussion after the 2019 World Cup it is accepted that changes are needed — especially given the brutal 12 month season just endured by Northern Hemisphere internationals — and the Lions’ place in all that is up for grabs.
Actually agreeing on what changes to make — that’s another matter.
The South want the June tours moved to July, so as not to impact on Super Rugby. The North are reticent about the potential impact on their traditional season.
Suggestions that the Six Nations and Autumn Internationals be moved have met resistance in the northern hemisphere, whose ruling bodies have an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ view about tampering with their crown jewels. And while one Premiership coach described the Lions schedule as ‘ludicrous’, there appears little chance of change in the future.
Okay, so what about extra preparation time? “The reality is we have to be conscious of other rugby properties. We can’t impose ourselves on people and restructure a whole year around a Lions tour,” Feehan said.
“Would I like another two or three weeks preparation? Of course I would. Can we fit it into the schedule? I don’t think we can. We have to be realistic about these things.”
All parties seem determined to fit the Lions tour into whatever the brave new rugby world looks like. But right now the financial needs of the South and the self-interested power brokers of the North are in danger of running the whole concept into the ground. Preparing a battered, weary squad to beat the All Blacks on such a tight timescale seems, as Gatland might say, crazy.
It might be crazy to think that the Lions, in its current format, can survive in the modern game at all.
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