In the time worn phrase, this letter is written more in sorrow than anger.
I am the ultimate Lions ‘anorak’. My bookshelf contains Reyburn, McLean, Jenkins, Thomas and should Kirsty Young ever be sufficiently hard up for guests to have me on Desert Island Discs, I will ask for John Reason’s ‘The Unbeaten Lions’ about the 1974 tour.
My first Lions memory is the 9-47 trouncing of Wellington in 1971, when John Williams (as he was then known) opened up from your 25, Gibson handled with the subtle skills unique to him, and moments later you were sprinting into the right corner for one of the great tries. Seven years later Mike Slemen touched down in Potchefstroom after the ball went through twenty-something pairs of hands. And so on via the 1997 Dawson dummy, to Robinson and O’Driscoll at The Gabba in 2001. That is what the word ‘Lions’ conjures for me: rugby the Gods come out to watch.
Where are the artists this time? What brief did your group give the Coach when appointing him? My heart sank when I saw reports of a £100,000 bonus for Warren Gatland if the Lions won the series. No, was my first instinct. Award him a generous bonus if they play the sort of football people will speak of in awed tones forty years from now.
Using Bill McLaren’s wonderful phrase who, in the party announced, can “sense a gap with the instincts of a forest animal”? BO’D certainly, Hogg maybe. But the Cares and Laidlaws miss out to bigger blokes who offer ‘physicality’, bangers ahead of footballers at 12, and the lightest wing is 6’3” and 15 stone ‘on the hoof’. Red slabs of beef indeed. Whither a Gerald or a Shane, much less a Hook or a Wade.
The great game has already passed from contact to collision, a frequently tedious amalgam of Union/League/American football. Big is beautiful. Power and pace.
You, and those around you had – maybe still have – a chance, probably uniquely at the top level of the game, to strike a blow for the sort of rugby thousands of people in these islands grew up loving. The Lions used to be about romance. The big Afrikaner maulers, and the sinewy Kiwi ruckers usually beat us, but we know they admired – envied even – that Kyle and Morgan, O’Reilly and Scotland, Watkins and John and Duckham played the game in a beautiful way they could not.
Has it all become about ‘the brand’?’ Do the men in suits say ‘we must win’ otherwise NTL/Zurich/HSBC won’t pony up the same loot next time around. And bugger the legacy, the contribution to the wider game.
Which leads neatly to my next point. Just as I can’t recall a huge lump wearing no.9 in gold or black – and leaving Robbie Deans aside – can you tell me what Poms have coached Australia/NZ /SA, or are likely to? Quod erat demonstratum.
Henry was the wrong choice in 2001, even if Woodward illustrated in 2005 why he was overlooked four years previously. It should be always be one of our own. Just like Carwyn was plucked from Stradey, there are men from here who could do it perfectly well. Frankly, we are in danger of hearing more rubbish on the difficulties of ‘blending four nations’ and ‘four different playing styles’ than we get every second year on the Ryder Cup captaincy.
I say four nations, but plenty north of Hadrian’s Wall have felt for a while now that it is three and a bit. A friend from Troon has lived in Auckland since 1990. He travelled to Christchurch in 2005 in a black jersey as he felt disconnected from the team.
The amateur era saw a selector from each of the FHU and there were understandable mutterings about horse trading. I know not what part A.R Irvine played this time, but many see two from the Welsh camp and two from the English. Let’s take a peep at their non-international links: Rowntree/Leicester (6), Farrell/Saracens (3), Howley/Cardiff Blues (5), Gatland/ New Zealand (2).
Okay, the last one is tongue in cheek, but many a true word etc. That is 16 out of 37, and you can make your own estimate as to how many are ‘fringe choices’ Even the much lauded McGeechan took five from Northampton in 1997, and the names of Beal and Grayson hardly resonate today.
Matthew Scott qualifies as a ‘footballer’ at inside centre, and his try from that position against Italy in February hinted at an ability to do something his rivals don’t. Whatever reservations may exist on his defence or experience, how much better might he perform between Sexton and O’Driscoll than those beside him that day. Isn’t that what selection for the Lions has traditionally involved?
It may be unrealistic to suggest the jersey should be a reward for contributions rendered, but those running the London Olympics placed much emphasis on youth and legacy. Role models? Were this an England soccer squad, plenty of media noise would follow the inclusion of players banned for cocaine and biting (try googling Luis Suarez).
I am pretty sure that, thirty years from now, Rory Best will be coaching kids on a dark night in Banbridge or Portadown. I wonder where Sean Maitland, not to mention Matt Stevens and Dylan Hartley, will be. Where does Riki Flutey wear his Lions tracksuit these days?
We are tiptoeing around ‘isms’ now, but while Fe’ao Vunipola and Kuli Faletau will be pleased for their sons, as will Alesana and HenryTuilagi for their brother, how much greater that pride were the younger generation to be spearheading the red of Tonga and the blue of Samoa at RWC 2015 as their elders did so nobly and effectively in days gone by.
I met Messrs Dawson and Millar recently, and walked away feeling like I’d had an audience with Gorbachev and Mandela. I have sat across a dinner table from the late John Robins, and devoured his scrapbook from the 1950 tour. I experienced the joys of Athletic Park 1993 and Durban 1997, the frustrations of Lancaster Park 1993 and Pretoria 2009.
People like me, and you know there are plenty of us, consider the jersey (in the words of Max Boyce, I won’t wear it till they pick me) and all things directly connected with it, to be sacred. There is a fear that your Committee, in its role as Custodian, have allowed it to become less so.
This time I have the pleasure of leading a tour group, but at present am agnostic as to whether the Wallabies win. In the greater scheme of things, that may be for the best, struggling as they are against three other vibrant football codes.
Victory has a hundred fathers, defeat is an orphan. I felt these concerns deserved an airing now, before the tour’s post-mortem becomes influenced purely by results. You have a reputation for seeing the wider picture, and perhaps being one our last and best hope for preserving so many great traditions which seem – avoidably – to be at stake.
One wonders what consideration they got this time; nobody has told us, but the 37 names read out on that fated Tuesday say quite a lot.
Does this Loins squad lack the romance & artistry of squads gone by? Comments below…