To tour or not to tour, that is the question. In fact, this is just one of many questions the UK and Irish Lions Boards face when it comes to what to do with the proposed summer tour to South Africa.
In an ideal world, the most logical decision would be to postpone the tour by one year to the same place in 2022. This would be my preferred option as this tour with South Africa as the reigning world champion is the biggest event that international rugby has on the calendar up to the knockout stage of the 2023 World Cup in France.
What makes the Lions so special is the uniqueness of the competition, which is unveiled every four years before being re-wrapped in bubble wrap at the height of its popularity. The regularity with which the big three from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia play against each other these days has made their fans yearn for a Lions series more than ever. Remember, your players and fans only experience this once every 12 years.
In the midst of the current pandemic and the challenges facing so many fronts, I have great sympathy for the Lions Board in dealing with a number of parties to the conflict, not least those who sit at their own tables.
If they do decide to continue a tour in any format – a final decision on that will be made this month – it will be a poor imitation of reality introduced in a watered down format to meet financial commitments. Surely Lions tours have become way too big and important for the game to be reduced to a box-ticking exercise?
It will also change the rules of engagement. There’s a reason a Lions series is so hard to win. The enormous difficulty of the challenge is what makes it so convincing. Not only do you compete against a high-profile southern hemisphere giant in his garden, but also against an entire rugby-obsessed nation in New Zealand and South Africa in particular.
Even in Australia, with its diverse range of professional sports, when the tide turns against officials, accusations of foul play, cheating or other allegations will be spread in an orchestrated media drive led by former gamblers and gamblers and officials targeting all perceived evils of tourists point out.
In New Zealand it is different in that nothing has to be manufactured. The general public usually doesn’t waste time telling you how crappy they feel about your face without asking you to. I remember an elderly lady who told Ollie Campbell how he could improve his kick technique. What’s scary is that maybe she had a point.
The pressure to perform is omnipresent. You are against the world, even as the huge hordes of traveling Lions supporters, who have become a staple of the experience since the rise of professionalism, help reinforce what you are fighting for in the first place.
A Lions tour in South Africa this coming July and August in empty stadiums seems completely pointless. It defeats the purpose of touring in the first place. The frenzied support, manic physicality and raw emotions that I experienced firsthand, either from the coaching box for the first test against the Wallabies in Brisbane in 2001 or from the comment box at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria for the second test against the Springboks 2009 are special rugby occasions that will stay with me forever.
The problem the Lions board is currently facing is that their hands appear to be tied tight behind their backs as they cannot postpone the hike to July 2022. We are told this is not a runner as all home countries have three intense test tours this summer for their respective coaches this is a central part of their preparations for the World Cup the following year.
From an Irish perspective, Andy Farrell believes he will learn more if he puts 30 Irish players in a three-test series against New Zealand than if his best players spend the summer with their Scottish counterparts a little over a year outside their World Cup pool B spend game against Gregor Townsend’s men at the Stade de France.
England has a similar tour to Australia and Wales to South Africa, which is a major complication. The difficulty for Lions is that the CEOs of the four home unions sit on their board of directors and are clearly in conflict when it comes to making the best decision from a Lions perspective. Their priority must be what is best for their own national team. The bottom line in this complicated dilemma is that the final decision depends on the money and how the four home unions under the common umbrella of Lions can meet their financial obligations to the host union Down Under, which not only relies heavily on massive payday to them However, keeping afloat can only plan for this massive gust of wind once every twelve years.
The 2013 Lions Tour allowed the ARU to remain solvent, while the planned trip to South Africa this year is of equal financial importance to their union as the Springboks have not played a single friendly match since winning the World Cup in November 2019.
Remember the big reason people like New Zealand, South Africa and Australia tour here every November unpacking Murrayfield, Aviva, Principality and Twickenham, where each union makes millions more than New Zealand would rake in by accepting Ireland’s promise massive Lions payday every 12 years.
Therefore, the four home unions must find a way to meet their financial commitments to South Africa when they need it most. Make no mistake, rugby is the secondary issue here and that makes me nervous about the direction this great Lions journey is headed.
Aside from playing behind closed doors in South Africa this summer, there are two other options to consider. On the table is an offer from the Australian union to host the tour and give a financial guarantee from their government. That must be resisted.
While Australia is currently home to a large community of British, Irish and South African supporters, a tour of this type would receive little support from the broader Australian media and public. The fact that no one from that part of the world can attend makes it worse.
The least worst option seems to be to relocate the tour to the UK and Ireland. That said, it’s extremely unlikely we can stage a game here, considering how far our vaccine rollout is compared to the advances on the water. Even then, they speak of a minimum stadium capacity of 25%, which is far from ideal.
The Lions Board is reported to have reached out to the UK government to sign a “travel home” financial guarantee in case games are forced behind closed doors due to new Covid outbreaks. One wonders how this would end up with the UK taxpayer.
Right now the Lions board is in a corner with the three options, each of which is uncomfortable to different degrees. Thinking outside the box, there is another solution that I think should be considered, even if full collaboration is required.
Clear the way for a 2022 Lions tour of South Africa by bringing the Ireland and England tours to New Zealand and Australia, respectively, to the window the Lions cleared this summer. Major sporting events are already taking place in both countries.
Instead of Wales traveling to South Africa in 2022, this summer invite the Springboks to three series of tests against potential Grand Slam winners of 2021. Play two tests in Cardiff with the middle one in Twickenham to maximize financial returns. This option will prove logistically challenging but needs to be considered.
Think back to the first behind the scenes video of the Lions Tour to South Africa in 1997 and tell me you can repeat that kind of intensity and camaraderie on a tour that is in empty stadiums or half empty stadiums across the UK is played. Bite the bullet now and maintain the integrity of the tour by staging it in 2022.