The magic of a Lions tour

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Warren Gatland with his injured captain Sam Warburton. (AP Photo/ David Davies, PA)

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It’s easy to be down on rugby nowadays. It so often seems to be the half-blind bumbling uncle of Australian football.

Where soccer has international glamour and youth appeal, rugby league has blood-stirring brutality and tribalism, and the AFL has a massive bag full of cash that it uses to bash everyone else over the head with, rugby union has penalty goals and annual humiliation by New Zealanders.

It’s not a lot to hang the hat on.

The diehard rugby lover in this country has much to lament and little to cheer about right now. A national team that has been thumped mercilessly into the hard, unforgiving earth year after year by our fiercest rivals.

Top-flight players succumbing to the lure of off-field idiocy.

A game choked and stifled by pedantic refereeing, inscrutable rules, and the relative ease and rich reward of scoring through the sharpshooter’s boot rather than the free-runner’s hands.

Dwindling audiences and media coverage swamped by the rival codes’ big boys.

It can be hard to muster enthusiasm to examine the state of Australian rugby, when the biggest stories are Digby Ioane taking the yen and running, or Kurtley Beale booking himself into rehab.

But here come the British and Irish Lions, and in this most grand and rare tradition lies the key to rediscovering what is beautiful and unique about rugby.

The first Lions tour I saw was in 1989, an unfortunate one for Australia, most famous for David Campese’s catastrophic decision to try to launch an attack from behind his own goal-line, the wild pass he threw to Greg Martin in pursuit of this aim, and the resultant gift-wrapped try that handed the Lions victory.

My second Lions series was in 2001, when the Wallabies were beaten badly in the first Test and trailing at half-time in the second, before Joe Roff ignited a stirring comeback from John Eales’ great side, and Australia clambered all over the men in red to take the series 2-1.

And that was 12 years ago.

All of those Wallabies have passed into history. It makes me feel old to reflect on just how much time has passed since, but it also makes me rejoice in the magic of a Lions tour.

And this, this is something rugby can genuinely crow about.

A tour and a series that only comes along every twelve years is, in itself, something special. That’s three times as rare as a World Cup, and rare indeed will be the player who faces the Lions twice in his career.

That means gaining a Wallaby jersey for this series is an achievement that those who manage it will savour all their lives, as of course will those who wear the Lions jersey against them. For everyone involved, it’s a historic occasion, and that history is something rugby retains even now.

So far removed from the yearly round-robin of club football, or the rinse-and-repeat Rugby Championship, this is a series between two teams that will never face each other again in anything like the same configurations.

There’s also the nature of the Lions team itself. It’s not just a national team – it’s a supergroup.

This northern-hemisphere Travelling Wilburys comes to throw the might of combined British Isles against the best our sparse Aussie population can muster. The other football codes can’t provide this flavour of contest.

Soccer is global, but its nations keep themselves to themselves.

League has its own British Lions, of course, but they’re really England, and in any case league can’t even match netball for international outreach, let alone union; and the wonderful Kangaroos tours of years past, when the Test team would clash with the Lions and the mid-week Emus would take on Widnes and Warrington are long dead.

And of course the AFL’s best stab at an international contest is tossing a bunch of rules from Australian and Gaelic football into a bag, pulling half of them out at random, and then sending a group of third-tier players with nothing better to do to Ireland every couple of years to see how many punches they can get in before being thrown out of the country.

The Lions are the flagship of rugby’s international community – a reminder that the notion of the Grand Tour still beats strong in this sport.

But more than anything, the Lions are a marvellous demonstration in this age of hyper-professionalism, percentage plays and full-time dieticians, of the wonderful romance of rugby. The football that held out longer than anyone else in staying amateur still retains a spark of that old just-for-fun feeling.

No doubt this touring party will be as professional and well-drilled as anyone, but the very fact it’s here, rolling around the country with its bellowing entourage, means rugby people can remain, in a corner of their hearts, rugby people.

It means that even while CEOs and high-performance managers plot professional pathways and talent identification schemes, we can recall that it was just eighteen years ago that Steve Merrick was the last player plucked from nowhere, going from Singleton in rural NSW to the Wallabies.

Even while teams remorselessly play risk-free rugby in an attempt to force penalties and win without exposing the ball to dangerous open air, we can still keep the connection between the dour grind we’re watching and games like the Barbarians versus All Blacks of 1973, the connection between robotic kicking and Gareth Edwards’s swan dive.

And even while the sport languishes behind the energised go-getters of rival codes dominating the markets, we can remember just what’s so special about it.

Romance in sport is so rare now. Nobody in the Test team ever hit a ball with a stump against a water tank.

None of our Olympians train barefoot on a dirt track. There are no front-rowers who built their biceps hauling garbage cans, and no elite athletes lighting up a smoke at halftime.

And there’s a lot to be said about the way we do things now.

But to lose all trace of the romance would be a tragedy. Though clinging to this Lions tour might be an act of desperation brought on by the shortness of supply, I will still view these Test matches, in all their carefully-choreographed, gym-hardened glory, with the misty eyes of a rugby tragic remembering 2001, and 1989, and 1973, and the ghosts of happy amateurs past.

I will do it because it’s those ghosts who make this tour possible, and it’s those ghosts who make this game something worth keeping alive.

Ben Pobjie is a writer & comedian writing on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys watching Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms.

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