Lions’ 2025 Australia tour must be special amid threat to future


ver British and Irish Lions tour is an existential event. That is the very nature of a quadrennial series that, in so many respects, swims against the tide of the professional game.

This was the seventh Lions tour since the game went professional 26 years ago and is the hardest to judge. It seems extremely harsh to draw too many conclusions on the validity of the concept of the Lions on the basis of an ugly tour undertaken against so many obstacles during a global pandemic.

It is an achievement to have completed the thing, even if few — players, administrators, and certainly fans — will truly say they are sad to see the back of it.

The pandemic robbed this tour of so much. The lack of fans, from South Africa, Britain and Ireland, left it sterile and stale. It brought a real distance between the people and the players, who were tucked away in their biosecure bubbles. Covid limited the venues, with the Tests all in Cape Town. Covid weakened the warm-up opposition, because all the Springboks were ­bubble-bound.

All this meant the ugly aspects of modern rugby — not just some of the play, but all the bickering — came right to the surface. One of the many grim arguments over the officiating related to the pandemic; the Lions fumed when World Rugby failed to provide another neutral TMO after New Zealander Brendon Pickerill could not travel due to logistical issues.

Most of all, Covid brought an uneasy backdrop, with South Africa suffering in so many ways. It provided day-to-day uncertainty that was hard to handle. When the Lions were forced into making eight late changes (including unleashing the innovative 7-1 bench split because so few backs were available) for the first of their two midweek matches against the Sharks, it felt like the tour was doomed and stumps could be called any minute. They battled on.

That it finished shows that the players really do cherish the Lions, because they sacrificed plenty — not least the fact their tour is not over as they have to quarantine once more. For a decent chunk of players, this will be their only tour; it is sad they will never experience the real deal.

Selection for the Lions is a career highlight, while selection to play against them can pass even great players by if timings are unkind. South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber said before the decider that Saturday’s match and a World Cup Final were the pinnacle of a Springbok’s career.

Certainly, players on both sides seem to cherish the Lions more than the administrators, who continue to squeeze the tour.

In the wake of Saturday’s nail-biting 19-16 loss, courtesy of Morne Steyn’s penalty just two minutes from time that condemned the tourists to a 2-1 series defeat, Alun Wyn Jones hit the right notes when summing up the meaning of the Lions.

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