Why Lions remain relevant in the 21st century

After the weeks of verbal jousting started by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and latterly engaged in by Lions boss Warren Gatland, the pair of New Zealanders have finally found some common ground.

They both believe the British and Irish Lions are an entity worth fighting to keep.

As discussions continue as to the detail of World Rugby’s new global calendar for 2019 and beyond (and the place of the Lions in that schedule every four years) there are fears the famous amalgamation might be squeezed out of existence, further fuelled by comments from current tour manager John Spencer.

Former England back Spencer, 69, has long been the RFU’s representative on the Lions board and fears that pressure from clubs in England to reduce the length of tours from six to five weeks could undermine the existence of the touring concept.

“If they take a couple of matches away from us, all coaches think that is madness, bordering on insanity — voluntary insanity,” Spencer told the The Daily Telegraph. “If we are not careful with preparation, I think the Lions could be a dead concept.”

Spencer was a member of the 1971 touring party that returned home to the UK and Ireland with the Lions’ only series victory in New Zealand. Both protagonists of the 2017 test series count that tour as having a significant impact on their future lives.

“I am incredibly passionate about the Lions. I think it’s something we need to protect for the future. I think going forward we need to make sure the Lions have adequate preparation time and an adequate number of games,” said Gatland, 53, before recollecting his first impressions of the Lions in 1971.

“I thought rugby was invented in New Zealand growing up,” the Hamilton native added. “I didn’t think the All Blacks could ever be beaten.

“It (the 1971 tour) did have a big impact on me, it was the first time I realised the game was played in other parts of the world.

“The Lions have been to New Zealand 11 times, it’s only once before they’ve won. It is tough because you’re putting a group of players together in such a short period.”

All Blacks head coach Hansen, 58, was also a wide-eyed, rugby mad kid when he saw the 1971 tourists visited his native South Island, and although his memories may be a little faulty — he seems to conflate the infamous Battle of Lancaster Park in Christchurch when the Lions beat Canterbury 14-9 and the first of the four tests at Carisbrook in Dunedin, won by the tourists 9-3, the magic of an All Blacks-Lions series shines through.

“You can’t just pick on one little bit of history. You’ve got to look at the whole thing: The good, the bad, and the ugly. We don’t have tours anymore in world rugby,” said Hansen.

“The guys in the first game (of 2017, against the Provincial Barbarians) were from lesser teams and they loved it. Those kids have gone out and played well above themselves and they’ll take those memories into their retirement.

“The first test I ever saw was in Carisbrook in ’71. I was only a little kid — if you can imagine me being little — and it was awesome.

“I was right up the front by the fence and I overheard (Scottish prop Sandy) Carmichael saying to Colin Meads, ‘How do you like that scrummaging boyo?’ Meads said, ‘Yeah, not too bad, but we just scored a try.’ I enjoyed that.

“There are things that you keep with you. I was at Christchurch Boys High in my last year when they came out and we met Fran Cotton and those guys at the school. Those things don’t normally happen. It would be a real shame if we ever lose the Lions.”

There are not just steps down memory lane that fire the imagination for those who love the Lions. Fly-half Owen Farrell has witnessed it this week as the 2017 tour has made its way from Rotorua to Hamilton and on to Auckland for this morning’s first test at Eden Park.

Which is why he has found questions about the relevance of the Lions concept as “very strange”.

“When you see it, we even felt in Hamilton the build-up around it, the hype, and how much people enjoy it and how much the players enjoy it and how much everybody involved in it loves it,” said Farrel.

“It seems like everybody else grips onto it when it’s happening so I don’t see why anything negative is said about it.

“As a club team you spend every day together, as an international team, you spend 17 weeks a year together and that could go on for however many years. This comes round once every four years but you spend two weeks before you go away and start playing.

"Obviously it’s a bit of a bigger tour to your normal international ones, but the buy-in and the amount that goes into it and how much players look forward to it is huge. That shows by the way that people go about their business everyday.”


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