By Gavin Mortimer
EVEN THE biggest, fiercest, proudest Lions supporter would find it hard to dispute that so far the 2013 tour has been a let-down. Not quite a farce but verging on one. Nearly three weeks in and four matches gone and the sense of anti-climax is overwhelming. Apart from the cracking contest against the Queensland Reds, the Lions haven’t been seriously tested in their other three matches.
This could all change when the Test series starts on Saturday week, but no Lions tour in recent memory has got off to such a ponderous start. Pity the players, so desperate to impress in the battle for a place in the Test side, and spare a thought for Warren Gatland, tasked with selecting his best XV in a series of warm-up matches that wouldn’t stretch a touring pub team. No wonder he declared recently that “the tour is probably two matches too short for us and you would like a couple more warm-up matches going into that first Test”.
Gatland isn’t the only ex-hooker muttering at the way things have turned out on this tour. Brian Moore, who toured Australia with the 1989 Lions, has been outspoken in his criticism of Australia’s attitude towards their visitors. Having already renamed Western Force ‘Western Farce’, the former England hooker used his column in this week’s Telegraph to propose a radical restructuring of future Lions tours Down Under – that is if Australia continue to field weakened provincial sides in the lead up to the Test series. What Moore proposes is that the ARU “should allow the three Pacific Island nations to play the Lions on Australian soil”. Not only would it be “commercially viable”, writes Moore, it would also be a shot in the arm for Fijian, Samoan and Tongan rugby.
It’s a bold and worthy idea, one the Lions should consider. And while they’re at it, here’s another proposition: why don’t the Lions tour France? The Lions have played before in France, in October 1989, in a match to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution that ended 29-27 to the visitors. But why not base an entire tour in France?
France didn’t have a rugby infrastructure in the amateur era to accommodate such a tour, but club rugby across the Channel has undergone a revolution in the past decade and the Top 14 is now the richest and most powerful league in the world game with so many overseas stars that even if the French coach pulled his 30 best homegrown players from tour matches, the Lions would still be challenged in every game.
Let’s imagine for a moment the 2013 Lions are now in France and not Australia. They would have kicked off their tour with a match against the French Barbarians, a team containing a sprinkling of promising Gallic talent and a few old heads such as Lionel Nallet, Julien Dupuy and Yannick Jauzion.
Then it would have been off to Biarritz, Basque country, to play a side containing the likes of Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili. The following Saturday it’s Toulouse at the Stade Municipal, a seething cauldron filled with 35,000 souls all screaming for the Lions’ blood while cheering on Clement Poitrenaud, William Servat and Luke McAlister.
Survive that experience and the Lions head to a midweek encounter against France A in Montpellier before moving along the Mediterranean coast to face Jonny, Bakkies and the rest of their pals in Toulon.
The Tuesday sees the Lions run out against Racing Metro at the their 32,000-seater stadium just west of Paris, the final chance for Warren Gatland to run the rule over his squad, before the first Test the following Saturday at the Stade de France.
A trip to Clermont is the final Lions midweek match before the second Test at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. The series ends with the third and final Test at the fabled Parc des Princes.
What a tour that would be, not just for the players but also the fans. Ask anyone who was in France for the 2007 World Cup and they will tell you – the French know how to lay on a good spread. The wine, the cheese, the sun – and not a whinging Aussie in sight.