Allan Massie: Ironic that professional rugby has diminished the Lions

Dipping into Bill McLaren’s autobiography again I was reminded of his regret that rugby union had gone “open” – which is to say, professional at its upper level. Yet he also recognised that “the World Cup has been wonderful for the game worldwide”.

Conor Murray scores a try for the Lions against New Zealand in 2017. But the rugby calendar is now too full to allow 20 or more matches against provincial sides. Picture: Getty.
Conor Murray scores a try for the Lions against New Zealand in 2017. But the rugby calendar is now too full to allow 20 or more matches against provincial sides. Picture: Getty.

True enough, yet there’s a contradiction here, for the World Cup undoubtedly pushed the door to professionalism wide open – even if it was already off the latch and the first three World Cups were still amateur, nominally.

I find it remarkable that it is now 32 years since the first World Cup was staged, matches spread across New Zealand and Australia. Not everybody was keen on the idea. Both the SRU and the IRFU were doubtful.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

It’s strange now to think of the Irish being hesitant. No country has made a bigger success of professional rugby than Ireland – even if they haven’t done so well in any World Cup. The SRU’s initial response was in the spirit of one of the Union’s former presidents who said: “When anything new is proposed, we say ‘no’ – then we think about it and say ‘no’ again.” But we fell into line, as we usually do.

Two things made the World Cup and, hence, professional rugby possible. The first was the development of inter-continental air travel; the second, satellite television which enabled matches on one side of the world to be shown live all over the world. The days when a Lions tour was for many players a once-in-a-lifetime experience as they travelled by ship to the southern hemisphere and were away from home, family and work for anything between four and six months were already long gone, but younger fans may be surprised to learn that we had to rely on radio for live coverage of the great 1971 Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand.

Sometimes players had to turn down a Lions invitation. Douglas Elliot, the outstanding Scottish player of the ten years after the Second World War, had to do that in 1950 because he couldn’t be away from the farm for six months. That fine lock forward Frans Ten Bos couldn’t go to South Africa in 1962 because he had just started a job in the City and his wife was expecting their first child. Some years later, one Borders player was able to go to New Zealand with the Lions only because some in his town clubbed together to enable his employer to pay his wages and hire a replacement while he was away.

Nothing like this can happen now, but the irony is that what has made professional rugby possible and sustainable has also diminished the Lions, for the rugby calendar is now far too full to permit the long tour with matches against 20 or more provincial sides.

Bill’s autobiography was published in 2004 and there have been a lot of changes to the game since, not all for the better. He deplored “the fact that we now talk of ‘big hits’ and ‘high-impact collisions’ rather than tackles, which he rightly thought dangerous, and the greater emphasis put on organised defence.

He thought it “unhealthy” and disliked seeing “defenders stretched across the field… forming a wall that is becoming progressively harder to breach. The attacking side will perhaps have four, five six or even more recycled possession in their attempt to break through…”

What would he have said to the 20 or 30 recyclings by teams such as Leinster and Saracens? He feared that “we have turned our code into a 15-man version of rugby league”. A fair comment, one sometimes thinks, even more so now than when he wrote. Certainly there have been matches in recent years when I have found myself envying rugby league’s five-tackle law. At least it ensures a change of possession.

Of course problems are there to be solved and he would surely have admired the sense of adventure shown by teams such as Glasgow and indeed Scotland. Likewise he would have been impressed by the astonishingly skilful off-loads that characterise the game today.

But there is a downside to most innovations, and the ability even of front-row forwards to offload the ball to a supporting runner has unquestionably contributed to the practice of tackling above the waist in an attempt to stifle the off-load rather than round the hips or knees, with the result that the classic low tackle is now the exception, not the norm.

The lawmakers have tried to make the game safer by outlawing the highest tackles. This is a step in the right direction, but Bill’s fear that “the culture of ‘big hits’ would start to seep down to the lower reaches of the game” has proved well-founded. “Mothers,” he suggested “will take a dim view of their sons playing rugby at all”; many fathers too, nowadays. Revision of a fair number of laws is now urgently required. The trouble is, of course, that any such revision is usually devilled by another law – “the law of unforeseen consequences”. Still, there are things that need looking at, and things that might be done. More on that subject another week.