NEW ZEALAND — Do the British & Irish Lions have a place in a game which is increasingly becoming obsessed with monetisation? Ask those who travelled to New Zealand as supporters, those who played for the team representing the four countries or those who have etched their name into the Lions’ rich history that question and you would get a resolute ‘yes’ before the final words had even left your mouth.
What Warren Gatland and his team achieved over the last six weeks is remarkable. The Lions are as important as ever. Sport has a duty to inspire, thrill and bring together people from all over the world to enjoy a spectacle in a welcoming environment. The Lions’ series in New Zealand achieved that with the hosts creating the most brilliant occasion and the travelling side being wonderful tourists.
The series was breathtaking, sporting drama unparalleled. After 240 minutes of cacophonous noise, it ended with an eerie silence in Auckland; those in the stand who had shouted themselves hoarse were stunned, while those bent over searching their lungs for air on the Eden Park turf attempted to understand the significance of a draw. Is that it? Surely we have to have one more… surely.
The immediate suggestion was to play a decider in November; of course there is more chance of Romain Poite being awarded the freedom of Auckland than that happening. Rugby is not a beast that lends itself to romanticism these days and Gatland alluded to that post-match when he said it would be great for it to happen, before qualifying that statement with “if PRL [Premiership Rugby] agreed to release the players”.
Herein lies the conflict at the heart of the Lions. A six-week tour, in a game now rightly concerned with player welfare sits a little uneasily. The clubs in England, run by Premiership Rugby, want shorter Lions tours; they were also unwilling to move the final of the tournament to give the tourists an extra week’s preparation. There are only so many weeks in a year when rugby can be played.
So for the Lions to get their rightful preparation time for 2021, something has to give — similar to the global calendar arrangement where such is the paranoia over the shifting plates of the world game, everyone is attempting to preserve what slippery foothold they have and self-interest is rampant. The schedule remains a problem.
“We hope that we don’t let the next four years go before we start planning and putting things in place,” Gatland said. “Discussions need to take place about just having some reasonable preparation time. Not being stupid, I’m not asking for a month. I think a week in the UK or Ireland beforehand then arrive in South Africa for a week before the first game is reasonable.
“Maybe looking at not having a midweek game before the first Test and having an opportunity to prepare properly is sensible and reasonable. Hopefully the powers in the game — the four home unions, the clubs — can work together to preserve what for me, and a lot of people who have been out on this tour, is something special.”
How could anyone doubt the future of the team after the last six weeks of passion, controversy, thrilling rugby and bone-shuddering ferocity that cause hairs to stand on end amid stifled screams.
Gatland leaves with his reputation enhanced. He was derided by the local media, with one article calling him a “journeyman Test coach”, adding he lacked the magical touch to create a winning Lions team. Ridiculous, incorrect sentiments. Gatland worked wonders to bring this group together.
Could some players have travelled earlier? Gatland wanted the fly to New Zealand as one; squad unity was his focus, the Test team and the non-playing members of the team were one group, they would win and lose together.
The tour was not without controversy. The ‘geography six’ decision provoked outcry, with some corners claiming he had devalued the jersey. They would go on to play a minimal role in the tour. Gatland was also concerned over blocking and the All Blacks’ perceived targeting of Conor Murray. Each were met with verbal retorts from the Kiwi camp, and the clown treatment followed.
Personal comments were also made, directed towards his family. He drew the line at that. “My wife asked me about three weeks into the tour, she said ‘how are you enjoying the tour?’ and I said ‘I’m hating it’,” Gatland said, and then continued: “You don’t publicly show that something’s affecting you but I don’t mind people criticising me tactically or the way that we play but I thought some of the stuff was quite personal and as a Kiwi, I found that quite challenging to be perfectly honest.”
But after overcoming that hurdle and receiving assurances that Trudi and his two children were okay, his focus turned to enjoyment and rugby.
He had the last laugh in that final press conference as he sported the red nose, and a slightly mischievous glint in his eye. Will he be the next All Blacks coach? Probably not, but he made his point in the place he still calls home.
For the players, reputations were also enhanced. Murray was described by Sir Graham Henry as the best scrum-half in world rugby — praise indeed — while Taulupe Faletau, Jonathan Davies, Tadhg Furlong, Sean O’Brien, Anthony Watson and Ben Te’o all saw their stock rise. And then there is Maro Itoje who became a cult hero with fans as they used the White Stripes’ melody to boom out their support from the stands.
Others never had a chance to really fire a shot with Ross Moriarty and Stuart Hogg unfortunate injury casualties. A few more never got going: George North and Robbie Henshaw would have been in the Test mix before the series started, but drifted away and were eventually sent home injured. Time is on their side with 2021 and the Springboks looming.
To come away from New Zealand with a series draw is a huge achievement for Gatland. He has dealt with an awful lot, but coming away as equals after playing the All Blacks as part of the hardest schedule any Lions team has ever faced, is massive.
“The legacy I would like to see from this tour is one of integrity, dignity, discipline,” tour manager John Spencer said. “In fact our core values. I’ve always said that if we went away with integrity we’d be happy.
“But that was a small lie because we wanted to win as well, that was the main objective. I think we will leave a legacy here that’s valuable, positive and it will make them want us to come again.”
The elephant in the room is whether Gatland would like another crack at completing a trio of series in charge of the Lions.
“Yeah, possibly. It’s up to the board and the Lions isn’t it. I’m definitely, definitely finishing up after the World Cup with Wales, no matter what. They may get rid of me before the World Cup. I would have been there for long enough and so I don’t know what I’m going to do post-2019, there’s no plans at the moment. I’m not worried about the future.
“There’s a possibility that if that opportunity came again it would be something you would consider. The South African thing is a little bit easier in terms of the timeframes and the travel and getting there.”
Above his reputation, this team have proved, again, why the Lions are so important. Those who were there to witness the oceans of red in Auckland’s quayside, or the streams of Lions supporters in Wellington’s Courtney Place, know there is only one answer to whether the Lions remain a key part of the game.
They should no longer be an endangered entity in the modern game, they are as relevant now as ever.
“The first thing which is special is the fans,” Gatland said. “You’re going away from home and you’ve got this army of travelling support that are incredibly vocal and passionate about the Lions, want to have a good time, see the team play well and support the team no matter what.
“There’s no doubt the players see the Lions as the pinnacle of their careers. Getting selected for the Lions and trying to be successful away from home against one of the top three or four teams in the world is the ultimate challenge.”