Is it time for a European Lions v the southern hemisphere rugby test match series?

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?

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  • Trasna

    The Lions is way past its sell by date and ought be dispensed with. You also over play its importance to rugby supporters. Many rugby fans, like me, couldn’t give two hoots about the Lions as its just a useless relic from the past.

    It’s also a year when our best players end up playing 12 months of non stop rugby, and when they return they are straight into the 2017/2018, making it nearly two years of constant playing.

  • Barneyt

    I saw this article and thought, this is going to wind people up…and in the first statement you include Ireland in the British Isles. I’ll read on and see where this goes. An even the use of the word Lion….which despite ancient history, is now very much a symbol of England. Perhaps Englands theme is to dominate Europe now and subsume them too. Anyhow, perhaps I am judging too early.

  • Steven Denny

    …well despite the two previous comments… I love the Lions, both as a spectacle and sporting event.

    It is a bit of a throw back… but so what… lets embrace the fact that it is a bit sporting heritage that in Ireland we can all enjoy etc…

    If its not for you… then that’s fine too…

    I don’t really like/watch golf… but am not advocating that we consign it to the bin either…

  • Barneyt

    A great game …. but I get frustrated when folks don’t get it right. Ireland termed as part of the British isles is old school and akin to called Mumbai Bombay and equating England and the UK etc. Takes very little to get it right

  • Paul Hagan

    Scotland also uses a lion on a well-known flag and coast of arms, meanwhile Welsh nationalists have used lions as a symbol for centuries. Across the rugby world the name is popular with a number of clubs as well as used as a symbol by other national teams (such as Spain). I think you’re reading a little too deeply into this, at the end it’s about a rugby team and we shouldn’t try to make too much political hey out of it, for that reason a European lions team mightn’t be a bad idea at all.

  • Paul Hagan

    I know a lot of fans don’t care for it much, and that’s up to them, but many like me love it and it’s clear that it’s a good motivation for many players which is no bad thing. The sheer numbers of travelling fans, some have saved-up for years for the trip and others like me, get-up at ungodly hours of the morning to see some matches. Your second point though is one I think is a good one needs to be looked-at.

  • Barneyt

    Thats what I was referring to when I used the words “…which despite ancient history”. I am aware of the Scottish Lion and the use of this animal elsewhere, such as Denmark. I welcome the name change, from British Lions to the British and Irish Lions as its an improvement and demonstrates some recognition of the Irish identity. Given that the NI unionist parties objected to the name change, it demonstrates that this was already political. They did not want the Britishness to be diluted you see. The team was therefore regarded as a British initiative. The Lion was thought to be the animal that best personifies the qualities of Britishness, i.e. Strength, Courage, Dignity and Pride. So, its not only a symbol of Britishness, but it is inherited from England, which inherited the three lions from Elenor. Its not appropriate to foist the symbol of one particular nation on others, be it Ireland or on a wider scale. The team and idea of the Lions was formed when the united kingdom was comprised of All of Ireland and Britain, so technically it was fitting as it was all British owned or rather, owned by England. Despite the creation of an Irish state and later the emergence of the Irish Republic, the name stuck, along with the notion that both Islands remained British. Some still include the ROI in the British Isles, but that is just an education thing. I dont know if its down to laziness, pure arrogance of the British or apathy on the Irish part, but why it stuck until 2001 is beyond me.

  • Trasna

    Enjoy, must have Sky. The Lions isn’t about sport but about money.

  • Trasna

    Phist, at least Mumbai/Bombay is in India,

  • Rob Havard

    No

  • Paul Hagan

    “Some still include the ROI in the British Isles” I wasn’t really aware that was a contentious term, I know that the Irish Govt doesn’t but still I’m not really aware of that being a problematic term. Maybe that’s an “education thing” as I left school over a decade ago

  • Steven Denny

    Yes we do have Sky… professional sport is always about money… that’s why it’s professional…?