Cape Town – So the British and Irish Lions tour of South
Africa in 2021, a coveted, once-in-a-dozen-years occurrence for the hosting
country, is likely to be chopped to a miserly eight matches ostensibly because
of fears over the ability of our country to field non-Test teams of sufficient
strength to pose a worthy enough challenge.
Try to sell me another Rolls-Royce with a dog-tired Tata
engine beneath the bonnet … I’m not buying it.
This has absolutely everything to do with the protective paranoia
and voracious self-interest of clubs north of the equator, cynically prepared
to ride roughshod over one of rugby union’s finest traditions, and knowing that
they will probably get away with it.
If they do, they will be as guilty as the wealthiest modern soccer
clubs are, too, in progressively devaluing international football - sometimes
even World Cups in that particular sport seem not significantly more than “nice
to haves” these days, don’t they?
The whole business also smells, pungently, of the way Test
cricket is gradually, and in a cocktail of both the subtlest and most brazen of
fashions, eroded in importance and majesty as the cash-cow shorter formats
tighten their grip remorselessly on the calendar.
Reports have surfaced in the UK suggesting – in tones
confident enough to detect that casting in stone will be a fait accompli – that
the 2021 Lions will play a record low eight matches in South Africa, including
the intended three Tests.
The spin (an expression that barely existed in bygone eras)
being placed on it by nameless “administrators” quoted is that there is concern
over the competitiveness – lack thereof, they fear – of South African teams the
Lions will encounter outside of the Test roster.
We know South African rugby currently has its problems, its
challenges, many of them related to the immeasurably greater attractiveness of
foreign currencies that lure away more and more of the best names to overseas
But it is also thoroughly disingenuous – correction, it is
pure bull-dust – to try to wrap shortened-visit proposals in the suggestion
that South Africa (land of twice World Cup-winning teams and still with an
immensely strong rugby culture, warts and all) somehow might not generally cut
it enough between the white lines to make for a memorable, decent-duration
No less audacious, and frankly disrespectful, is to make
this brazen assumption almost a full four years before the tour takes place anyway.
Crikey, is it expected that we will have nose-dived to the rugby level of
Portugal by then?
Call them “midweek” or “dirt-tracker” games, if you wish,
but matches outside of the Tests on a Lions tour have enduring appeal in their
own right; they represent once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in many instances
for often more unsung players to sample a Lions match and potentially engineer
a hallowed jersey swap.
Such home-based combatants are well capable of throwing the
kitchen sink at the challenge: it was only on the second-last Lions tour of
South Africa, in 1997, that the visitors were horribly stretched, for example,
in game two by Border – yes, Border, at the Basil Kenyon Stadium – before
It’s all part of the David v Goliath charm, all part of the
intriguing process of tour acclimatisation and related issues.
At least the media speculation this week does make slightly
more pertinent, nearer-to-honest reference to “pressure from the English
Premiership clubs, backed by the Rugby Football Union (RFU)” to curtail the
Lions tour as a means of easing workload for their investments.
But even then, such narrow-mindedness only confirms a
cynical disregard for the rich history and what makes Lions tours so great,
such a panacea and a point of difference every four years from the monotony –
especially in some parts of the rugby planet – of conventional first-class
It’s a bit like crassly suggesting, centuries ago, “hmm,
let’s discourage him from painting The
Night Watch; it may leave poor old Rembrandt spent”.
Those who love a Lions tour (and who doesn’t, among
passionate and dedicated followers of the game?) would have winced even as the
safaris were gradually slashed in tour-length terms, in the period immediately
leading up to full professionalism and then as noticeably during it.
Of course it is impractical to suggest in a much-changed
landscape since then that anything like the itinerary of probably the “Greatest
Lions” – now 77-year-old Willie-John McBride’s immortals of 1974 in this
country – should be restored.
Then, they were on our shores for a blissful (albeit painful
in so many ways, too) near three months, playing 22 matches in all and in just
about every significant city plus a generous sprinkling of novel backwaters,
and truly immersing themselves in the South African psyche and lifestyle –
exactly what sports “tours” should do, by classical definition.
But the Lions have pretty much fallen prey to a trimming
trend ever since.
Lions devotees would probably have liked to have thought
that 2013 in Australia (nine tour matches, a figure that hearteningly cranked
slightly back upward to 10 for New Zealand 2017) was a nadir for tour length.
But South Africa supposedly being earmarked for a
now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t sort of tally of eight in 2021 smacks of even
more dangerous precedent; just more of a threat that Lions tours could succumb
to outright extinction, despite the ongoing public yearning.
Some will argue that I am out of touch with the “realities”
of the professional era.
I hope I am not alone in countering, with no lack of
indignation and bewilderment, that reality can be grossly over-rated.
Certain traditions are worth fighting for.
Lions tours are among them.
Or do we just meekly accept that the “Lion” is going the way
of the rhino?
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writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing