What’s the point of the Lions?

“Tonight is the peak of Mount Everest”

Those were Tom Court’s words after his one and only appearance for the British and Irish Lions in 2013. In reality, Court wasn’t part of the squad based on his rugby ability. It was more a case of “right place, right time” during a family holiday to Australia.

That doesn’t seem to matter to Court though, and he’ll always cherish his Lions experience. Players who achieved much more in the game than Court, like Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, also talk highly about their achievements of playing and captaining the touring side. But in modern sport, is the concept of the Lions out-of-place?

The idea of a touring side made up of players from fours countries seems anachronistic in today’s structured, professional rugby world. Most teams spend months perfecting game plans and years building partnerships. The Lions requires players who have been rivals for the previous four years to come together and form a team in a few weeks. They’re then sent half way around the planet to play against the best teams in the world, in their own back yard.

With the exception of 2013, they’ve gone in as under-dogs for  each series in the professional era. In that time, they’ve won just 6 of their 15 test  games, and it’s hard to see them improve on that stat with this summer’s tour to New Zealand.

There would be a better chance of England taking a scalp against New Zealand than there is of a combined British & Irish XV. This is something that Phil Larder, assistant coach in 2001 and 2005, has said himself of previous tours: “After the tour we felt that if England had been out there instead of the Lions we would have won the series”

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Members of the Lions squad heading out for training in Carton House, before the tour to Australia in 2013.

For players, the attraction of the Lions is undoubtedly the recognition of being selected as the best  player in your position. No matter what club or country honours you might win, a Lions call up is a stamp of approval for your individual ability. Is this really such a big deal though? Players are picked from four countries: not even from the whole northern hemisphere. If the coach decides to take three scrum halves or out halves, he’s taking three-quarters of the starting internationals available to him. It’s not exactly the elite group that it might seem.

It’s questionable whether coaches even pick the best players these days. In the past, the selections were  done by selection committees who chose the best players and worried about game the plan later. Today the selections are very much based on the coach’s plans. 2013 saw Warren Gatland pick players suited to his “Warrenball” game plan. His decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll in the final test to accommodate Jonathan Davis was one example of a more limited player being brought in at the expense of a better footballer.

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The Lions can give players like Richie Grey (and his mop of hair) the recognition they deserve, regardless of club or international results.

For fans (well for me personally at least)  the Lions can be a tough team to get behind. They don’t have the local connection to the supporters that provinces and clubs do. They lack a national identity like international teams have.

It’s hard to imagine kids growing up in the shadows of Thomond Park or Ravenhill dreaming of playing for the Lions: their dreams are going to be much more home-based. Although we’ve been lucky to have had plenty of Irish players involved over the years, there is never much of a Lions bandwagon: there won’t be homecomings if they’re victorious and there won’t be big screens up showing matches.

What’s the point of the Lions then? It’s a hard one to nail down… Maybe it brings us back to a purer time; when sport was about talent and skill, instead of finely tuned systems and patterns? Maybe it gives players a chance to get the individual recognition they deserve?

Or maybe it’s just exciting to see the best players from these islands play against the best players in the southern hemisphere? And if it gives a holidaying Tom Court the chance to scale Everest, then all the better.

 

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