The magic of a Lions tour

Ben Pobjie Columnist

By Ben Pobjie, Ben Pobjie is a Roar Expert

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    Warren Gatland with his Lions 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
    Ben Pobjie

    Ben Pobjie is a writer & comedian writing on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. 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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    The Crowd Says (34)

    • May 17th 2013 @ 9:51am
      Loyal tah fan said | May 17th 2013 @ 9:51am | ! Report

      I am massively excited about the coming lions series but am somewhat surprised as to the weight of importance that is being placed on the wallabies winning. I have heard comments about not blooding new players in a lions series but to save them for the rugby championships. Plus the talk of picking G. Smith bending the rules as it is a lions series. Is the RC and bledisloe not important this year? Would be interested to hear everyone’s opinion on what is more important to win this year? Lions tour or Bledisloe??

      Comment left via The Roar’s iPhone app. Download it now [http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/the-roar/id327174726?mt=8].

      • May 17th 2013 @ 9:54am
        mania said | May 17th 2013 @ 9:54am | ! Report

        loyal – its more the percieved chance wb’s have of winning the bledisloe and TRC. they probably think that naturally they should beat the lions

      • Roar Guru

        May 17th 2013 @ 1:56pm
        AdamS said | May 17th 2013 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

        For the PR gurus at the ARU, it is probably the Lions. Sellout crowds, massive TV coverage and as it’s something rare, probably a lot of viewers who are not regular rugger types. It’s important that the tour is succesful.
        For the tragics, if you gave them the choice, it’s probably the Bled. The RC?…Meh, I don’t think anyone cares. Take the Bled and the Mandela and you have the Championship anyway…

        I think we have every right to expect to beat the Lions, in the professional era they have a tough job with everything stacked against them, lots of travel, tour games every four days against professional players and teams who will still be looking for a RC or tour callup…big ask for the Lions to win IMHO.

    • May 17th 2013 @ 10:19am
      kingplaymaker said | May 17th 2013 @ 10:19am | ! Report

      Rugby has the older, charming cards such as the Lions and Barbarians, the new glamorous card in the Olympics, and the big regular aces in World Cups, big international tournaments, overseas tours: a battery of weapons that an ambitious administration could easily employ to battle its rivals.

      • May 17th 2013 @ 10:46am
        Will Sinclair said | May 17th 2013 @ 10:46am | ! Report

        Great summary KPM.

        Agree with everything you said.

        • May 17th 2013 @ 10:53am
          kingplaymaker said | May 17th 2013 @ 10:53am | ! Report

          Will rugby at the dawn of professionalism made the bizarre choice to pit 3-5 teams against three or two times the number of its competitors, and the fatal consequences have slowly unwoven since. There’s no reason whatsoever it should be in such a weak position.

    • May 17th 2013 @ 10:22am
      clipper said | May 17th 2013 @ 10:22am | ! Report

      I agree with your point about the competitiveness and interest in league on the international stage was stronger years ago and has more or less gone with NSW and QLD’s dominance, but that the Lions have kept those two qualities alive for as long as they’ve been going. It’s a special tour with a grand history – even in the depths of ‘the troubles’ the Lions were still playing as a united side.

    • May 17th 2013 @ 10:48am
      Will Sinclair said | May 17th 2013 @ 10:48am | ! Report

      I wonder how much of the allure of a Lions Tour comes down to the fact it is just that… a Tour.

      As an extension, I wonder whether a proper Tour by another major nation (maybe England or South Africa or New Zealand), where they bring a squad and play mid-week games against provincial sides and a full three-Test series, would also be welcomed?

      There is just something wonderful and romantic about a proper Tour.

      Or maybe I am just getting old.

      • May 17th 2013 @ 11:32am
        Atawhai Drive said | May 17th 2013 @ 11:32am | ! Report

        Maybe it’s age, Will. But the old tours were special.

        The 1959 Lions played six matches in Australia and 25 in New Zealand. It seemed like the tour would never end. But my eight-year-old self didn’t want it to end.

        Today’s Lions tours are short and brutal. But at least we still have them.

        Greg Growden reckons that Lions management is unhappy about ‘gaping holes in the itinerary’ of this year’s tour. He doesn’t elaborate. Does anyone know what these gaping holes might be?

        • Editor

          May 17th 2013 @ 11:41am
          Tristan Rayner said | May 17th 2013 @ 11:41am | ! Report

          The Lions Tour fixtures list is here guys:

          http://www.theroar.com.au/british-and-irish-lions-fixtures/

          I don’t see any holes. It’s all mid-week-Saturday-mid-week-Saturday etc. It’s gruelling.

          Nice piece today Ben.

          • Roar Guru

            May 17th 2013 @ 11:45am
            Atawhai Drive said | May 17th 2013 @ 11:45am | ! Report

            It’s pretty tough, but it was bound to be. In 2001 they got a couple of relatively easy matches, against the Western Australia XV and NSW Country. This time it’s the Force, and a Combined Country team that is Country in origin, with few if any amateurs likely to play.

            So short and brutal, with no visible gaps.

            • Editor

              May 17th 2013 @ 12:07pm
              Tristan Rayner said | May 17th 2013 @ 12:07pm | ! Report

              Perhaps off-field gaps? Surely the players would love to wander around Newcastle on their day off? 🙂

    • May 17th 2013 @ 12:13pm
      Boris said | May 17th 2013 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

      Ben that’s a pretty negative take on the current state of rugby. While some of the things you say are true I think most of the super rugby this year has actually been quite good. Also the Aussie teams are playing well, even the Rebels and Force. I reckon the Force could give the Lions a real shake when they play in Perth as the Force will basicly be at full strength (no wallabies except maybe McMenimen or Cummins).

      • May 17th 2013 @ 12:26pm
        justsaying said | May 17th 2013 @ 12:26pm | ! Report

        Has it actually been decided that no Wallabies will feature outside of the tests? I would’ve thought that at least the Force and Reds, who both play the lions 2 weeks or more before the first test, should get to field their Wallabies. As for the Waratahs, Brumbies and Rebels, I’d hope that at least the squad members outside the 22 would be released, if not those outside the starting 15. Can anyone enlighten me?

      • May 17th 2013 @ 1:38pm
        AGO74 said | May 17th 2013 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

        That may be true Boris that the rugby this year is good – but would the majority of the population even know who is winning the comp let alone if its good quality? That is rugby’s problem.

        Ben’s comment “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.” is 100% spot on. When you can’t sell a Bledisloe match out then you have problems…..even non rugby fans get interested in the Lions Tour.

    • May 17th 2013 @ 12:40pm
      Tock said | May 17th 2013 @ 12:40pm | ! Report

      great read

      I have wonderful memories of the 2001 tour in Melbourne would not miss it for the world this time around

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