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Lack of Lions preparation is brutally apparent [Jun. 25th, 2009|11:19 am]
Peter Bills
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Cape Town.
A horrible air of finality hangs over this Lions tour of South Africa, mirroring the dark storm clouds that have sat over the Western Cape this week.
It has long since become apparent that dark forces are gathering to threaten the whole concept of Lions tours. The difficulty in finding time for professional players from the northern hemisphere to commit to a Lions tour of any serious length is just one of them.
This is the shortest Lions tour ever undertaken and the lack of preparation is brutally apparent. Even now, with just two matches left, the Tests in Pretoria this Saturday and Johannesburg the following weekend, it is obvious that the Lions coaching staff are still finding out about players by putting together different combinations.
Yet one Test has been lost, the last two are nigh. The schedule is proving simply impossible for the Lions to make any serious impact in the series.
Against what is likely to be another new Lions Test team this Saturday which will play together for the first time, as the side in Durban did in last Saturday's opening Test, you have a Springbok team which has a core of players who have been together since 2004.
The likes of John Smit, Victor Matfield,. Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana have played around 50 Tests each, almost every one of them alongside their colleagues. How on earth is it possible for a Lions squad which only met for the first time last month, to match such cohesion, understanding and proven excellence? The answer is, they can't.
In amateur days, when no country could come together more than a couple of days before a Test match, it was much more of a level playing field. Today, with teams in camp for four or five weeks at a stretch working on their patterns and units, there is a huge advantage.
The Lions can no longer compete on such terms because they no longer undertake the type of lengthy, 22 match tours which gave coaches and players time to create a structure and close knit unit. This 10-match tour has been absurd by those standards which were fundamental to the success of the 1971 and 1974 Lions.
But that is just one reason why the whole future of the Lions is imperilled. Another major factor is that South Africa has blatantly used the Lions concept as a cash cow to be milked ruthlessly. To see vast areas of empty seats at all the provincial games in the build-up to the 1st Test was alarming. But for a few thousand seats to remain unsold for the Test match in Durban was a matter for huge concern.
The reason why so many true rugby fans refused to attend was the exorbitant ticket prices imposed by the South African Rugby Union. Cynically, they little cared whether grounds were sold out. They just wanted to price tickets at an astronomical Rand 1,200, about £100, when normally they would have been no more than Rand 2-300. Of course, they knew that thousands of Lions supporters willing to pay such sums would travel and were willing to be fleeced. The local supporters were deemed irrelevant in the rush to cash in.
But if one of the Lions' key host countries of the southern hemisphere is now intent only on making money big time from their visit, there is a serious problem. The cash strapped Australians are next up for the Lions in 2013. Who is to say they won't adopt exactly the same attitude? Surely, the Lions' glorious history demands no place among such base contemporary motives.
Another problem has been the string of second teams put out against the tourists in the build-up to the 1st Test. This has done no-one any good, the Lions or the locals. An air of disinterest has hung over these matches; they have become a sideshow, an irrelevance where once they were a genuine test of the tourists mettle and a real spectacle.
But if the warm-up matches are no longer of any use, why would future Lions teams bother to play them? Better, in all probability, to warm-up by playing the likes of Munster, Toulouse and Leicester back home and just fly in for perhaps a 4-match Test series. But that would destroy the whole concept of Lions rugby.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that increasingly in this modern age of professional rugby where all that counts to everyone is money, the Lions tour has become an anachronism.

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