After a terrifically entertaining Six Nations, it would be traditional to get right on to whetting one’s appetite for the Summer Internationals. But 2021 is a Lions year so everything else takes a back seat and as someone whose primary focus in rugby is more often international rather than club, I’m about as interested in the British & Irish Lions as I am the political opinions of James Haskell. Were any of the home nations to be playing South Africa in July I’d watch, but the Lions?
Why, when you have three perfectly good national teams and England would you feel the need to combine them every four years?
Perhaps it’s the naked corporate cynicism that’s the turn-off, with seemingly every sponsor and package deal aimed at people who seem to have much, much more money than I do. And this isn’t new. The Lions didn’t start off as a result of geographical pride; the “Shaw and Shrewsbury Team” was a cash grab from day one that didn’t have the support of any of the Home Nations authorities. They’re in on it now of course, because the money’s very good, executive boxes don’t build themselves, and Eddie Jones has a dog to feed, but why are we all so happy to go along with it?
Conceivably it’s never piqued my interest because the tours have been exclusive to Sky since 1993 so my viewing options have generally been limited over the years. It’s hard to get invested in something you’re not watching.
Possibly my apathy comes down to the simplest explanation; representation. Since the turn of the Millennium, Scots have had roughly the same presence in the Lions as veganism has in the McDonald’s menu. There’s an unmistakable disenfranchisement factor.
Maybe it’s that the imagery of the British Empire touring its former territories smacks ever so slightly of an Imperialistic past that’s probably best left to history books.
Beyond all the above, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the whole concept has survived this long because we were all tired of losing to Southern Hemisphere sides. Picking the best players from four separate countries and then still struggling to win against one is a bit – whisper it quietly – pathetic, isn’t it?
This disillusionment doesn’t run in the family. My father and uncle, both of whom were raised in South Africa for a time, seemed to heartily enjoying going on the tours as fans. Certainly it seemed that way in the stories they told after not taking me with them.
Maybe I’m just bitter.
But presumably like most of a tartan barmy persuasion, I had many childhood dreams of pulling on a navy blue shirt and scoring the winning try for Scotland in a World Cup final. Clinching a Six Nations grand slam with a fifty-metre penalty kick from the side in the final moment of the game. I never dreamed about wearing red. For Christmas I’d ask Santa for an implausibly heavy cotton shirt with a thistle on it; not some mish-mash of different emblems in a colour that bore no relation to any team or community I’d ever supported.
Who but a Welshman would ever wish to dress like one?
For players, merely making the squad must be extraordinary. Being selected as one of the best players in the British Isles (and by extension, the world) is an undeniable honour. You’ll struggle to find many players who’ve refused for reasons beyond injury or family matters. Gerald Davies turned them down in ‘74, but that was in opposition to apartheid in South Africa; not the concept of the Lions themselves and he’d go on to coach them in 2009. But for fans? It’s tough to imagine anyone getting excited were Rangers, Celtic, Aberdeen, and Hearts to team up for a few games against Chelsea. And yet in rugby, most are palpitating.
Mayhaps I’m just intransigent, and the idea of cheering on an Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje after four years of boos and hisses seems as wrong to me as punching the air when the Empire blows up Alderaan.
But it doesn’t apply to all sport. I’ll happily cheer on Team Why-Isn’t-It-UK at the Olympics. London 2012 is one of my favourite sporting memories. For years I lived and died with Tim Henman on Centre Court at Wimbledon. I think Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Jensen Button, and Lewis Hamilton have all shown extraordinary grit and skill in being given the fastest cars in Formula 1.
So what’s different about rugby? Perhaps because along with football, it’s one of the few areas where you actually can see world-class sportsmen and women represent Scotland at the top level (Where, incidentally, is the Women’s Lions Tour?).
In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter what flag is on Ross Murdoch’s trunks in the swimming pool, but given it’s almost always a Union Jack, his gold medal at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014 was maybe that little bit sweeter because it was replaced by a Saltire and that’s a relative rarity at the elite level.
Elise Christie is a world record holder and world champion in speed skating. Born in Livingston and trained in Nottingham she’s done it all under a union flag and there’s nothing wrong or exceptional with that; certainly it doesn’t take away any element of her Scottish identity; but it’s not a choice as to whether she represents Scotland or the UK; it’s mandated.
Rugby it turns out, by allowing us to cheer on Scots as Scots is an exceptional phenomenon.
For all that many are happy to argue politics has no place in sport, of course it’s a part of it. From the idea that we have pretend fights with other countries on a rugby pitch in part as a replacement for actual ones on a battlefield to politicians of every stripe trying to associate themselves with success, there’s no getting away from it and as in society-at-large, so much of Scottish identity in sport has been subsumed by a British one.
Andy Murray won Olympic Gold, Open Championships and a Davis Cup as a Brit. He was unable to do it as a Scot. “GBR” are the letters that follow his name in all the record books.
And again, it doesn’t really matter. His success would be the same regardless, and aficionados don’t care about his nationality any more than they do Federer’s, Nadal’s, or Djokovic’s. Talent is talent and it’s a joy to behold wherever it originates and whomever it represents. Andy Murray is Scottish and British, and it just so happens that as with most sports, in tennis the latter takes priority.
But in rugby we have a professional Scottish national team and it is the default setting. To blur that away every four years in favour of the same Red, White, and Union that most other sports have seems perhaps to lessen its importance as an institution. If the Lions is the pinnacle, playing for Scotland is no longer the best thing a Scottish player can do.
Would you rather win a Scottish BAFTA for your TV show, or a real one? Scottish Sports Personality of the Year, or Actual Sports Personality of the Year?
Of course that’s why it’s hurt so much over recent Tours when Scots have been overlooked. The inferred opinion is, “yes you’re very good in your own little country, but in the real world where we have standards…”
It’s only fair to note that most people will rarely look this deeply at the matter and if asked specifically about it, simply won’t care and they’re probably right not to. The Lions is more test rugby; a thing we love, and an opportunity to see players alongside each other who might never work together absent the institution. How well might Louis Rees-Zammit speed through defences after linking up with Finn Russell? There’s only one way to find out. This is a brilliant idea and only someone looking for fault could hope to find it. Right?
Maybe. But looking at the fixture list, the highlight seems to come right at the start when they take on Japan at Murrayfield. The combined might of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland ready to beat down on a country that has scored – count them – just seven victories over Tier One teams in its entire history. It’s hard to get excited for the Lions when you think of it in those terms.
But supporting the Blossoms taking on one of the oldest and most powerful organisations in World Rugby? Cheering on an historic victory against all the odds that would shake the entire rugby world?
Now that sounds like fun.