The British and Irish Lions are one of the rugby’s greatest traditions. However, like the Barbarians, they have been shunted around and diminished in importance in recent years. It is no surprise then, that as the Lions have announced their schedule for the 2021 tour of South Africa, it is the shortest yet.
In fact, whether or not the Lions were going to be able to play a warm up game at Twickenham, against the Barbarians, was to be contingent on Premiership Rugby agreeing to move the date of the Premiership final a week earlier. Premiership Rugby have formally denied this respect, in a deeply saddening move for all those with priorities beyond simply maximising financial gain. This is a clear indication of how the balance of power, wealth and status is slowly ebbing away from the Lions’ side.
The truncated format announced this week, featuring just four matches against South African Super Rugby franchise opposition, one against an emerging Springboks side and three tests to complete the tour.
Whilst the prospect of a re-run of the dramatic 2009 tour, with the Lions once again going to meet a Springboks side recently crowned world champions, is exciting, one cannot help but feel the Lions as a brand are becoming less and less important, less central to the global game, and, ultimately, less special.
No longer will players be tested against some of the smaller local sides in midweek fixtures, no longer will the tour have the same ‘all for one’ squad mentality. Increasingly the whole tour feels like a build up to the three intensely contested and eminently marketable text fixtures at its finale.
In the past the Lions was about more than this: it was about a cultural immersion, a mixing of rugby traditions, an exchange of values as much as a set of fixtures. This may sound like misty eyed romanticism for a past that is, for better or worse, seemingly slipping away, but for those with an interest in protecting what might (at the risk of sounding dramatic) be described as rugby’s ‘soul,’ the Lions are an important thing to protect.
Rugby is, at club level, becoming increasingly profit and success orientated. Players are increasingly mercenaries performing a job that can seem soulless and brutally draining. The game is at a crossroads, it must decide what it wants to be.
“They will operate like a well-oiled machine,” said Rassie Erasmus this week, “and we will have to work very hard to match them in every department, on and off the field. The Lions have not lost a series since they were last here a decade ago and will present a next-level challenge in 18 months’ time.”
On the field, this tour is unlikely to disappoint as a contest. Off it, Lions fans should be worried.
Written by Joe Ronan.