Once every four years, the best players from the 4 rugby nations in the British isles play as a single team as the British and Irish lions.
And when it is a Lions year, every week the papers revise and review their best guess as to who will be in the test team, who will be in squad and who will be captain. This year, in June, the Lions go to New Zealand to play the All Blacks, where they have not won since 1971.
Writing now, after Ireland have defeated France and before they meet Wales in Cardiff, all Ireland is looking forward to the potential shoot-out for the 6 Nations title between Ireland and England (the current top 2) on the 18th march in Dublin.
Can Rory Best captain his side to victory in the championship and increase his chances of the Lions captaincy ahead of many people’s favourite for the job, England captain Dylan Hartley.
The last Lions tour to Australia (2013) saw 10 Irish players in the (original) selection and we will hopefully see at least that number again – and justifiably so – since Ireland (captained by Ulsterman Best) historically beat the All Blacks for the first time in 2016.
The Lions continues to be a massive success in sporting, commercial and media terms and enjoys significant travelling support from Ireland and Britain. But looking past this eagerly anticipated tour things do no look so positive.
We have seen in the relative decline of the FA Cup when compared with the Champions league and the massive amounts of money paid by TV companies for simply staying in the Premier league that history and tradition are not reliable indicators of future strength.
Commercial decision makers determine the direction of most professional sport today and today’s ‘market’ is not necessarily the same as tomorrow’s.
In 4 years time South Africa is next up for the Lions and South African rugby is not in the rudest of health. The once great rugby power who have twice won the Rugby World cup (1995,2007) is struggling to keep coherence in its rugby structures – and this is reflected in the National team’s performances.
South Africa are now ranked 7th in the world with Ireland 4th, England 2nd and Scotland 5th above them in the IRB world rankings().
Politics appears to have entered the selection equation and the financial health of the country is having a serious impact on their efforts in keeping the best players in the country and available for the National team.
It is estimated that there are more 300 professional South African players playing abroad.
Australia, the venue for the Lions in 8 years time have been beaten by England 4 times in 2016 including 3 times in Australia in the Summer. Australia, given its relatively small player base, is always likely to suffer downturns in the standard of its National team.
The Northern hemisphere is not just catching up Southern hemisphere rugby but in some instances has overtaken it with Ireland beating all the ‘big’ 3 Southern hemisphere teams(New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) in 2016.
So, perhaps it is getting close to the point that the Lions and the Southern hemisphere big 3 need to think about reviewing the way they operate whilst maintaining the Lions touring ethos and keeping its ‘brand’ intact. In golf, the Ryder Cup, which comprised only British and Irish players up until 1979, in their bi-annual tussle with the US, expanded to include golfers from all of Europe.
Perhaps a Northern hemisphere (Euro Lions) versus Southern hemisphere would be a good way to smooth over any swings in form amongst participating countries and have the added benefit of including players from countries desperately trying to expand and finance the game in their own country.
It is hard to argue that a Euro lions squad picked tomorrow would not include players from Italy and perhaps Georgia and that any Southern hemisphere squad would not include players from Fiji and Samoa. After all, if the world rugby authorities want to widen the sport’s supporter base the old powerhouses in the Northern and Southern hemispheres should be sharing the spoils more evenly – and Lions tours offer significant spoils for sharing.
The argument that the challenge for the Lions is to mould 4 teams into one against ‘superior’ opposition (mostly) no longer holds water when recent results are examined and without reform the Lions risks being all about its excellent traditions and only having competitive opposition when they tour New Zealand every 12 years.
There may be a serious danger of competitive tours being replaced by a spectacle without edge like can be seen with the touring Barbarian rugby teams.
Of course, vested interest and the complexity of logistics will militate against change. But as in any successful organisation the trick is to change and reform under your own terms when you are successful rather than try to manage the inevitable decline that accompanies the failure to plan for the future.
The Lions desperately need to avoid their claim that Lions selection is the ‘ultimate honour’ being an empty slogan much like the claim that the FA cup is the ‘is the best in the world’ when those taking part in the FA cup often don’t field anything like their strongest team.
So why not look at the possibility of a Southern hemisphere team to host the Lions every 4 years and a Lions team (which in direct contrast to the fragmenting European political union) is an expanded European union of rugby nations?