SIR Ian McGeechan’s devotion to the Lions is well-known and understandable; Lions tours have been a huge part of his life, first as a player, then as coach.
So it is natural and not at all surprising that he should have been complaining that the English Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect PRO12 leagues should have adjusted their calendar and staged their play-offs earlier in order to give Warren Gatland more time to prepare his Lions for the tour of Australia. Nevertheless, I think he’s wrong.
The Lions arouse great interest and an astonishing number of people will fly south to follow them. Players may indeed, as we are often told, regard selection for the Lions as the pinnacle of their career, though I wonder how many who have played in a Grand Slam-winning team in either the Five or Six Nations would have exchanged that achievement for a Lions cap. And, of course, in the months before a Lions tour, we all like to engage in the selection game, though this is not essentially different from that other late-night pastime – picking the best Scotland XV of the last 20 years, or the previous 20, or indeed of your lifetime.
Yet, really, the Lions don’t matter that much. They offer entertainment, which is fine, but whether they win or lose – and they lose far more often than they win – is of very little importance. I suspect that even the most devoted Lions followers care less about the result of the Test matches than they do about their own country’s results in the Six Nations. If Wales lose to England, a Welshman may be so deeply sunk in gloom that he won’t speak to his wife for a week; if the Lions are thumped by Australia, he’ll quite happily take her out to dinner.
The Six Nations championship matters more than the Lions. So does the Heineken Cup. Are Munstermen stirred by the Lions as they are by the Heineken? Surely not. The fortunes of Edinburgh and Glasgow in the PRO12 matter more to me and so, of course, do those of my own club, Selkirk. Watching Selkirk beat Gala or Melrose or Hawick is far more satisfying than any Lions victory, and seeing them lose is more depressing.
The Lions are a sort of super-Barbarians, a team of stars assembled briefly together. Drawn from four countries, the Test XV is seldom any better than the strongest of the national teams. The Lions may win the series in Australia this summer, but, if they do, then it’s quite likely that either Wales or England would have done so also. France, not, of course, part of the Lions set-up, win Test matches in the southern hemisphere more often than the Lions.
I used to think that the existence of the Lions gave the national teams of the four participating countries an inferiority complex when they came up against New Zealand, South Africa or Australia, the underlying thought being, “if the Lions can’t beat them, what chance have we on our own?” This probably isn’t true nowadays, even if it was when the game was amateur and when the Lions were perhaps comparatively stronger because tours lasted longer and the team had more time to be together.
So what do the Lions offer now? Gratification for the players, because being selected for the Lions is an accolade, a mark of recognition, and the tour will be a great experience. Entertainment for the fans who follow them and for those of us settled at home in front of the TV. A financial bonanza for Australian rugby and Australian tourism. All very satisfactory, with only this reservation; that few, except the players and their coaches, and I suppose, the Australians, will really care a hoot whether the series is won or lost.
Of course, we would like to see a number of Scots in the squad Warren Gatland will announce on Tuesday. This would be good for morale. I doubt, however, whether what used to be said in the amateur days still applies: namely, that experience of the Lions made the Scots in the party realise that they were every bit as good as their English, Welsh and Irish team-mates. Nowadays, players have so much experience of cross-borders rugby that they know – or should know this already. Meanwhile, I, at least, will be more interested in the performance of the Scotland squad in South Africa than in the Lions.
As to the composition of the party, I think about half the 36 players will be Welsh, and that the other 18 or 20 will be fairly evenly distributed between the other three countries. There will surely be fewer from England than seemed likely before they came such a cropper in Cardiff.
Meanwhile, there’s some cracking Heineken rugby to watch this weekend. The prospect of Clermont-Auvergne and Munster is mouth-watering.