Lions endangered species?

2011-11-28 12:06
British & Irish Lions badge (File)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town - If cricket’s most prestigious format, the Test fold, is considered under increasing sustainability threat, then quietly one of rugby’s finest themes – the British and Irish Lions tour of the southern hemisphere - is being eroded as well.

That seems apparent with the announcement on Monday of the fixture list for the 2013 visit to Australia, containing a record low nine matches.

The Lions traditionally visit one of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia every four years - meaning a guaranteed visit to one of them every dozen - and while they are always keenly-awaited and marked by large infusions of visitors from Britain and Ireland, even their refreshing status as a “genuine tour” opportunity is under increasing threat.

Those who cherish the values associated with the long-standing Lions concept - the first tour representative of all four Home Unions occurred in 1910, to South Africa - will find it hard to suppress a worried frown that the 2013 itinerary, announced by the Australian Rugby Union, has come down to single figures for the first time.

While not quite a “blink and you’ll miss it” state of affairs yet, an ongoing shrinkage trend is also there for all to see - the 2013 Lions play their opening Aussie fixture on June 5 against the Western Force in Perth, and finish with the last of three Tests at Sydney on July 6.

Sadly that agenda only features five Saturday tour matches, including the trio of Tests: significantly longer Lions tours of the pre-professional era were especially loved for their various “extra Tests” against full-strength provincial sides on the most popular and convenient day of the sporting week.

But now the big squeeze is on, partly a reflection of the dubiously, vastly expanded Super Rugby competition and also the addition of Argentina henceforth to the former Tri-Nations annual tournament.

It is difficult not to suspect just a hint of forked tongue when ARU boss John O’Neill gushed on Monday: “A Lions tour is a massive occasion. Behind the Rugby World Cup it is the most engaging, high-profile and popular event the game can showcase.”

Such enthusiasm is hardly reflected in the condensed scheduling, which must now include the likelihood that just as they are starting to bond adhesively as a touring party, the Lions will be on their way back home.

Unless there is any alteration to the modern scheduling trend in the interim, the next Lions tour to South Africa will take place in 2021.

An estimated 40 000 British and Irish supporters, at various times on the tour, were estimated to have made the trek here in 2009 when South Africa edged the Test series (there were 10 matches in all) 2-1.

The 1997 tour of South Africa featured 13 matches, which even then seemed a much rawer deal than the previous one in 1980 - before South Africa’s stint in isolation - which featured 18 games by Bill Beaumont’s side.

Any early bets on how long the 2021 Lions may stay?

The British and Irish Lions 2013 Tour schedule of Australia:

Wednesday, June 5 - Lions v Western Force, Perth
Saturday, June 8 - Lions v Reds, Brisbane
Wednesday, June 12 - Lions v Combined NSW-Queensland Country, Newcastle
Saturday, June 15 - Lions v Waratahs, Sydney
Tuesday, June 18 - Lions v Brumbies, Canberra
Saturday, June 22 - Lions v Wallabies, Brisbane
Tuesday, June 25 - Lions v Melbourne Rebels, Melbourne
Saturday, June 29 - Lions v Wallabies, Melbourne
Saturday, July 6 - Lions v Wallabies, Sydney


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