Lions Boredom

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. 

7 comments on “Lions Boredom

  1. sceptic 9 on

    However much I thought the almost non Scottish representation was not in line with the ideals of the Lions, the truth is the game is professional and emotion counts for nothing; we haven’t really deserved more representation. Can argue the odd player here and there, but so could the other home nations

    But the Lions concept was invented when rugby was soooooooooooooo amateur. And was a success, something very different and exotic when there was barely a 4 Nations, never mind a 5N or 6N; at a time when international matches outside the 4n/5N were few and far between. Might have been one touring team each November; might have been a Scotland tour some years but not every one; and no RWCs.
    The Lions filled that gap. Now we have three Nov tests (4 if you are Welsh or English); a summer tour of three tests every year; and a RCW every 4 years. A veritable surfeit of international rugby. Some would say too much, it takes away the novelty factor, even the excitement – and it hits hard on our professional rugby teams trying to compete with hugely depleted squads.

    All that is why I stopped taking a such an interest in the Lions, when I had a real fascination a a kid growing up. Its a concept which has outlived its purpose.
    Now it really is just about money. And this tour, according to Mr Gatland, is almost certain to lose money and the boost to the SA economy will not happen either.
    Given all that, and the pandemic situation still a huge issue globally, I struggle to see the point

  2. FF on

    I would never suggest anyone should feel obliged to support the Lions, I have barely followed them since 2001, but this argument sounds very parochial to me.

    People love the Lions because it is an event – each host receives the Lions every 12 years so unlike everything else in test rugby it has rarity value, it is an All-Star game for home Union players, like it or not it is a huge challenge because it is taking on the likes of SA and NZ in their backyard, teams with 6 world cups between them (Australia not so much nowadays) – it simply isn’t anything to do with identity (just ask the Irish), it’s about rugby and it is soaked in rugby lore.

    There is no getting away from the fact it frequently produces outstanding rugby – the 1997, 2001, 2009, 2017 were all epic series which are all too rare in the pro-era. And if you really object to the commercial aspect I think professional sport might not be for you.

    Try enjoying it as a rugby fan, or don’t, it’s not really important. Personally I’m really excited to see what Finn, Hoggy and Watson can do in the test team ;) against the world champions, I think they will do Scotland proud.

    • Not science on

      Yep, also be good to get them in the team and realise they’re better than players from the other nations in an international context.

  3. Scotty on

    Chris – very well written article but, when it comes to the Lions, we’re not singing off the same hymn sheet.

    As FF says, not only is the rugby of a consistently high standard and often an exceptionally close series (I think the fact the Lions have so little time together counters the fact they’re the best of four tier 1 nations) but there is a real romantic history to it. Thinking back to the first tours where they sailed to the Southern Hemisphere, played dozens of games and were away for months at a time has a real sense of history and pride behind it.

    Going down the political route is a dangerous game as I appreciate there are many who will refuse to support the English/British but I would suggest these fans need to take a step back and appreciate the spectacle for what it is. If people are so blinded by essentially unrelated politics that they can’t enjoy their sport at the highest level, I’d suggest they’re not true fans of it.

    I know it’s a lot of money and an opportunity not everyone will get, but if you manage to go to a Lions Tour, you’ll be screaming for the test team regardless of who’s in it as loud as you would at Murrayfield.

    • Chris Murray on

      Well as I note, there are plenty of sports where I do cheer on English athletes as British representatives (and indeed, as English ones; despite my general apathy towards football, Gareth Southgate seems to have assembled a good group of young lads), but in rugby it perhaps seems more… artificial?

      That sounds nonsensical, but while I support the British cycling team at the Olympics, I’m less enthused about a British football team. Like rugby, football is a rare sport where I can support Scotland and so need nothing atop that. And this is at an event where I’ll happily invest in an Englishman in a leotard trying to lift a heavy bar above his head.

      The above was as much me trying to work out my lack of interest as anything, and the jokes aside I think my final point is the most important one; where Team GB is the norm I’m on board, but in a sport where it seems manufactured not so much.

      • Merlot on

        As with Scotty, it is a well written article and made some very valid points. However, you state that “Were any of the home nations to be playing South Africa in July I’d watch, but the Lions?”
        It seems remarkable to me that you wouldn’t want to watch the Lions play South Africa. Surely (hopefully) the Lions would play a higher standard of rugby than any of the Home Nations? Taking the “would I support the Lions” out of the equation, surely you would watch the games just as a rugby supporter?
        I too find it difficult to support the Lions wholeheartedly, or at least not as much as supporting Scotland. I find myself wanting the Scots on tour to play better than their team-mates first, even above playing better than the opposition. However I look forward to the chance to support the likes of Itoje, Faletau and Henshaw for once, as I deem them great players and not arseholes (high praise from a Scot to any of the other home nation players).
        Your comparisons to tennis and formula one don’t really make sense, as we are cheering on an individual, not a team. Team GB is a good comparison, but not ideal as in most of the events it is still individuals. Even in the team events it is often one of the home nations’ teams representing Team GB (Curling for one).
        I think the best comparison is the Ryder Cup. Fabricated? Yes. Less interesting if there is no Scottish representation? Yes. Do I still watch it? Absolutely. Do I support the USA if there are no Scots in the team? Hell no

      • FF on

        Manufactured by a history starting in 1888? It really is a concept woven into the history of rugby in Britain and Ireland and therefore also the countries they tour. Calling it artificial is revisionist nonsense I’m afraid.

        Again, I have no problem with anyone choosing not to support them, I haven’t taken any interest because of lack of Scots in recent tours. But the facts are the facts.

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