|Lions tour only highlights Springbok deficiencies
||[Jul. 6th, 2009|11:18 am]
The 2009 Lions leave South Africa on Monday night, the Test series lost and yet, curiously, their concept re-invigorated.
No doubt partly due to South Africa's poor, dreadfully uneven performances during the Test series, the Lions escaped the 3-0 whitewash which an efficient, properly structured Springbok side would inevitably have inflicted. In the end, the Lions left bemoaning the fact that, but for a mere handful of points, a 2-1 series defeat could easily have been a draw or even a win.
No greater indictment of these misfiring Springboks exists than that fact. South African rugby has declined since the peak of the 2007 World Cup triumph.
Yet perhaps even more importantly, in the course of just six weeks, Lions coach Ian McGeechan and his colleagues repaired a great deal of the damage done to the Lions ethos by Clive Woodward's mad japes in 2005 in New Zealand. Now there's a thought, incidentally – imagine a Lions side coached by Woodward against a Springbok side coached by Peter de Villiers. Endless material for the men in white coats...
But significant factors still imperil the Lions. As Jeremy Guscott so rightly said last week "If the countries hosting the Lions do not give them proper respect by fielding as full strength sides as possible against them in the midweek games, then they place in peril the whole Lions idea."
Other elements have to change, too, for us to say with confidence the 2009 Lions' greatest achievement in future times will be seen to have restored the credibility of the brand. Not, mark you, the financial success of the brand; that is assured as long as tens of thousands of Brits and not a few Irishmen wish to splash their hard earned cash on the mother of all drinking sessions across the southern hemisphere for a few weeks every four years.
In Cape Town one night, one travelling Lions supporter splashed Rand 38,000 (approx. £3000) on a single bottle of French brandy. The bar manager's smile was still as wide as the Vaal river the next evening.
The onus here lies on the hosting unions. If, for example, Australia in four years time takes a similarly mercenary view of the tour as the South African rugby union of this one, then the future growth of the game will be actually stunted by the presence of the Lions.
I lost count of the number of people in Durban and Cape Town who told me that, lifelong rugby fans notwithstanding, they flatly refused to be fleeced by a greedy SARU charging European ticket prices in the southern hemisphere. So fathers refused to take kids to see the famous Lions….. How wonderful. Those at the top of South African rugby plus the Lions top brass if, as is alleged, they were in on the deal, should be ashamed of themselves for creating such a damaging trend in the game.
I wouldn't put it past Australia to do the same thing in four years time. But if the Lions concept is now little more than a cash bonanza for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, let's finish it here and now. I'd rather just have the memories than be confronted with that sordid sight every four years.
But the Lions themselves need to learn lessons, too. They didn't get out enough to see a wonderful country with all its fantastic people, beautiful scenery and enchanting sights. Too many of them, too often sat in their rooms idling time away. For that, you have to look at the management and their obsession with training. They should have insisted the players went on more organised trips, met more strangers. A constant diet of non-stop training will turn potentially bright young minds into robots. That speaks ill of the great traditions of this game.
Other things need tweaking. 10 matches is too short, although the Lions suffered self inflicted wounds when McGeechan refused to give his 1st Test side a run-out the previous weekend. That was a crass mistake.
For me, the tourists need at least one more warm-up match and probably a further game, making it a 12-match tour. IF, that is, they are to be confronted by proper teams, not'B' sides. If that happens again, they should just fly in for Tests and fly out. Depressing yes, but inevitable. No-one wants to see a series of six or seven irrelevant mismatches that mean nothing.
As ever, you thank the host country for the memories. My favourite? Playing tag rugby last Friday morning with a group of local kids on a rough, scrubby field in the heart of Johannesburg's tough Alexandra township, in an event arranged by tour sponsors HSBC. On that occasion, five Lions did turn up and participate.
I'd suggest they shared my view that to see the smiles on the faces of children with so little and almost certainly with so much heartache and deprivation in their lives was simply priceless. That is and always was one of the best moments of Lions tours.