I’ve written before, at significant length about my love affair with the British & Irish Lions rugby team.
Something I’ve found new and interesting about the current tour has been driven by my addiction to social media. Since the last tour I’ve well and truly engaged with various social media portals, one of which almost got me fired, but that’s another story.
I follow and engage with a lot of Irish rugby fans on Twitter, given my love of Munster Rugby. I was initially surprised at their hostility to the Lions, both the concept and reality. From the rugby point of view, I can understand a certain amount of cynicism. Stepping back, it’s perhaps not so surprising.
The sport has become infinitely more complex since the turn to professionalism. It is nigh on impossible for a scratch team, no matter how good the players are, to play flowing, attractive, attacking rugby and win a test series against the best team in the world. The Lions therefore have to play a somewhat limited game if they want to be successful. This can lead to a certain level of cynicism about the enterprise and its ability to entertain,
However this tends to be a secondary argument from my fellow Munster / Irish loving tweeps. At the heart of the issue, is a feeling that the Lions is a colonial jaunt that wants to bring Ireland back into the British fold and pretend that 1917 never happened.
Or something like that. I may be simplifying for reasons of space, time and comedic effect.
This then leads to he argument that there’s no room for the Lions in modern rugby due to both this issue and the scratch team point mentioned above – and the fact that it weakens Irish rugby as the best players come back injured and knackered. Also, in years past there was an argument that Irish players might have learned new techniques from the process; however given the improvement in Irish provincial and national teams, this argument has far less weight, especially when balanced against the other negatives, especially the injury one. Munster can’t afford to loose any of its Lions.
At its heart however, I think that the general complaint against the Lions from my Munster / Irish following friends is that
1. This team does represent me
2. The aggressive marketing being shoved down my throats emphasises the fact that this team does not represent me
3. The British, but particularly English media coverage of past tours has emphasised the British nature of the Lions and has quickly turned on some Irish players. Ronan O’Gara is often cited as a player who got far more stick than he deserve by British media that opened historical wounds.
As an ethnically British / Irish onetime historian and COIN analyst I get all this. It’s entirely understandable. Of course there’s the complication that the Irish rugby team isn’t the team of the Republic; it’s an all island team. Some of the team will consider God Save the Queen as their anthem, not the Soldiers Song. Then there’s the point that proud Irishmen such as ROG, Keith Wood, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and the Wallace brothers are entirely committed to the Lions concept, despite the pretty horrible treatment he got whilst wearing the shirt.
As a rugby fan, I’m not optimistic about the Lions’s chances in NZ. It’s statistically the hardest place to go for anyone, let alone a scratch team. The Lions shouldn’t have a chance. They should really lose every test and most of the provincial matches.
In fact, at the start of this tour, I might have shared some of these feelings, especially the naked commercialisation and money making drive that is a little bit too obvious for my liking. I don’t like sporting financial juggernauts. Of course everyone needs to make a living and the tour has to be paid for, but in he same way that Munster in combination with a willing media might have created something of a myth about the team as brand, the mythos of the Lions feels more and more artificial. I don’t like being sold to, and this is very aggressive selling.
Then there was the first few games where the Lions looked poor and I became more pessimistic and cynical. I was mentally preparing myself for the same disappointment I’d had last time the Lions toured NZ and trying not to care.
I decided to stop being a cynic, around the time the Lions started looking like they might have become a team.
I revelled in some of the old stories being told about 89 and 97. I loved the fact that Munster scrum half Connor Murray was playing really well. Then there’s the story of Peter O Mahony. He’s gone from being on the bench for Ireland to the Lions test captain via a heart wrenching year for Munster. There’s a scriptwriter sitting down at his desks now to write the incredible conclusion.
The three provincial / Maori wins have given the Lions a sense of purpose and a roadmap of how they might be successful. A sickeningly suffocating and powerful pack will tie up opponents and put the All Blacks on the back foot, where their dazzling back line will not be as effective. Behind the pack, moves are beginning to work, passes are sticking and tries are being scored.
They probably won’t win but their odds are shifting every day they spend together.
Also, all that stuff I wrote about loving the Lions concept remains true. I treasure my memories of watching games with my Dad and now my wife. This will be the first series that Aidan knows what’s going on. For a committed romantic like me, lost causes like a rugby tour to NZ are perfect.
Then there’s my own identity. I’m a half English, half Irish rugby nut that has never felt entirely at home at Twickenham and the Barbour Brigade in the West Car Park. I own numerous rugby shirts. Two London Irish, one Munster, three Lions, one Team GB Olympics, one Biarritz. Note the one missing? I love the idea that centuries of bad shit can be put aside in an impossible dream of taking on the best in the world and making something better out of the best of four countries.
I’ve given up on cynicism until the tour is over. Come on lads, shove the blacks around the park and shoe the shit out of them if they lie over the ball.
“Lions, Lions, Lions, Lions”