IT WAS all too appropriate that the British and Irish Lions should announce their assistant coaches last Wednesday in the palatial setting of Hopetoun House, the sort of place that makes Downton Abbey look like a WC.
• Rugby writer Iain Morrison will host an online debate on Wednesday at noon on the commercialisation of the Lions and the likelihood of Scots joining the tour
The stately home is used to hosting countless liveried flunkies, albeit a century or more ago, and sure enough the huge turnout of journalists was almost outnumbered by an equally large number of liveried Lions staff. The place was overrun with them, although what they all did remains a mystery? Every one of them sported a tie (or scarf for the ladies) complete with a golden lion on a red background. Lapel badges were compulsory but at least they distracted from the mandatory earpieces and walkie talkies.
“Sandwiches at 12 o’clock! Roger that.”
The organisers showed a video ahead of the event and they even had the brass neck to include footage from 2005, surely some sort of nadir in Lions history. Only the gravelly tones of Jim Telfer brought a little reality to proceedings. “Getting picked for the Lions is the easy bit,” he growls at the class of 1997. “Winning for the Lions is the hard part.” He has a point.
Whatever else it is based upon, the Lions brand has little to do with excellence. The team peaked in the 1970s with back-to-back series wins over New Zealand and South Africa and, since then, it’s been slim pickings. In their history the Lions have won exactly 36 per cent of all the Tests they have contested...comfortably worse than Scotland’s figure of 42 per cent, although, in fairness, they play every Test on the road. They have not won a series since 1997, ancient history at the dawn of professionalism and they have won just two series in the last nine attempts. So you’d imagine a degree of humility might be in order. You’d be wrong.
The head coach called Australia the “easiest” of the Lions’ three opponents. As the other two are New Zealand and South Africa, Warren Gatland, pictured, may be right, but do you really want your Kiwi coach giving their Kiwi coach that sort of ammunition before the battle has even begun? What happened to rugby’s core principle of respecting the opposition and when will Argentina be added to the roster?
When the conference was first flagged up a few weeks back, I cheekily phoned team manager Andy Irvine and asked for the names of the assistant coaches in advance, on the basis that they would appear in the Welsh press ahead of the due date so he might as well leak the names now before someone else did. Irvine didn’t bite, as I didn’t expect him to, and I was wrong in any case. The coaches’ names were leaked to both the English and Welsh press well before the event.
It is hardly a surprise because, several months back, Gatland leaked his own name to the New Zealand media before Irvine had a chance to tell the media about the coach for 2013. So, on the day, every journalist in the room, at least those who can read, already knew that Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Rob Howley were giving “Gats” a helping hand and Shaun Edwards was not. For all the money surrounding the grand old marque, it’s amateur hour in the Lions’ den when it comes to keeping a simple secret.
The point is that this whole Wednesday “announcement” was not only a waste of time but it was a bloated, self-satisfied and massively expensive waste of time into the bargain. What was once a proud (if not particularly successful) team has become little more than a corporate brand.
The radio rights have been bought up by one commercial station and the television rights by another global giant, so, needless to say, the compere on the day plugged both like an American car salesman.
No one was allowed to appear unless it was in front of one of the obligatory backdrops plastered with the names of corporate sponsors who are paying through the nose to have their name associated with the Lions. Turn the sound down and you could have been at any corporate jamboree.
The one thing the Lions have going for them is exclusivity. By swinging into action only on an occasional basis, they retain a mystique that even the All Blacks are slowly selling down the Swanee. The Lions are that rarity in elite sport, a genuine rarity. They tour once every four years (once every 12 years for the host country) and that alone lends them a cachet that they don’t otherwise deserve. Thanks to this exclusivity, the “brand” is a goldmine. The Lions will continue regardless of results on the field, simply since they make far too much money not to.
I was going to conclude that they should spare us all the corporate bullshit but, once all the financial imperatives are stripped out, what exactly is left?