I’ve tried cynicism, but I still love the Lions

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.

And then

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”


Thoughts on the Lions part 2

Thoughts on the Lions part 2

So what did the Barbarians game tell us about the Lions and what’s going to happen in Perth?

Well firstly, I think it’s fair to say that the Barbars game was a waste of time, unless you’re a Hong Kong based rugby fan. The scratch side with nothing but pride and a pay check seemed up for it, but the Lions are playing for more than pride and they steamrollered the Barbars. It was like a training game played in a sauna. Inconclusive for the fan, dangerous for the players. Maybe good for the sponsors (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), but not for anyone else.

There we some interesting pointers. You could see why Danny Care was left at home. Gatland wants to break the gain line immediately and for every man to tackle big. This means a big scrum half who is nearly a 4th back row, as opposed to a jinker with a lightning pass. Not that “2 step Care” has great distribution anyway.

Phillips played very well and Murray came on and played to the same model. Big, fast, aggressive, direct, linking the back row and the backs. Interesting for a one time 6’1 90kg scum half, but a bit of a shame for someone who loved Peter Stringer and Rob Jones. My favourite moment in rugby is Strings making Betsen look a fool in Cardiff.

The back row showed why its the most competitive position on tour, but I still think Tom Wood could have got a call and still might if there’s an injury. Tipuric played a great classical open side game, always being there, hitting tackles, showing hunger. Shame the captain’s above him. Lydiate looked good for a man out for a year but on hard grounds, I’d have Croft. My reason for thinking Wood is hard done by is I don’t think either 8 is outstanding, and it’s really their relationship with the two main 9s that has cemented their positions.

Other than that, Jamie Roberts showed what he can do yet again, but I don’t think we learned much about the three quarters, apart from Sexton looks a more natural fluid 10, either on the gain line, or kicking for position. Forget Farrell’s fisticuffs; if Burger had wanted to hurt him, he would have. I just think that at the moment, with no need for someone to fill in at centre, because centre is the 2nd tough position after back row, Farrell is a back up, not first choice.

I actually think 10 is a dangerous position. Why are people pining for a good defensive fly half that plays so far behind the gain line he can only kick to move forwards? Johnny last went past a back on the outside in about 2002. He was once brilliant at a lot, especially when guided by greenwood and catt. He’s now limited and needs a dominant pack.

Best hope Sexton stays fit.

So what are we looking for in the next match? For me, centre is the big decision. There are four candidates, each with their own pros and cons, but due to age, form, experience etc there isn’t an obvious stand out combination such as Gibbs and Guscott or ODriscoll and Roberts.

BOD; his brain still works at a truly elite level but can his body get him to where his brain wants him to be? Last time out he made space for Roberts and Croft to be amazingly but I remember thinking then, a younger BOD would have scored himself. Also, can he pay a couple of warm ups and 3 tests?

Roberts; for a man with many skills, including being a Doctor, it seems unfair to call him one dimensional but…. Roberts has never looked better than when playing with BOD but if the Irishman runs out of puff could those crash ball runs be better made by….

Tuilagi; no one hits harder, unless its Roberts. Manu has made a big impact in a short time, but I remain agnostic. Think he needs a system to be built around him, then he can be a monster. Good acceleration, if not lightning fast enough to be moved out to the wing. Might scare the opposition a bit more than others – not in a physical way, just in a “we’ve really got to watch him way, which might open up space for anyone else.

Davies: a very good player, who because he’s very neat, fast, direct, has good hands and can kick, but isn’t necessarily a headline maker, is unfairly judged against the three already mentioned. I reckon he’s on the bench as cover, but he could be a Rob Henderson; underrated until he smashes holes in the Wallaby backline and smashes the crap out of his opposite number.

So where does this ramble end up?

1 Gatland will okay a big 9 in the tests.

2 back row will be warburton, fallateau, croft, but Tom wood shouldn’t risk getting injured in Argentina

3 Sexton’s a shoe in. Best hope he stays fit, as the cupboard is bare.

4 BOD is going to tear the Aussies a new one. Again. And Doc Roberts will sow it up for them. If they’re fit, those two make a great combination, especially with some pace outside them. Manu and Davies are great backups, and don’t forget Tommy Bowe, who is actually the man in possession (with Ricky Flutey)

More on this story later. It’s going to be fun. I’m already getting that Lions feeling. The “7 pints of Guinness before mid day feeling”

Gatland said his pass is better than care's but needs to get to the gym

Gatland said his pass is better than Care’s but needs to get to the gym