This column was originally published in the October 2016 edition of Rugby World.
DESPITE WRONG turns (hello 2005) and crushing disappointments over the past 20 years, the rugby public continue to get their collective panties in a massive bunch at the mere mention of the word ‘Lions’.
There are always strong fears that professionalism, with its glut of international rugby and endless stream of over-hyped, must-win, must-see matches, might one day render Lions tours anachronistic. But for the moment the concept, teetering on top of a century of legendary players, occasional tour victories and endlessly recycled after-dinner stories, is alive and in the pink of health. Oh, and the fact they actually won the last series helps; losing to the shower that was Australia in 2013 would really have been a nine-inch nail in the coffin.
So, even nine months out, excitement is mounting, and comments sections and rugby chat rooms (though I’ll have to ask my dad – username Endbell48 – for confirmation) will be filling up with the sofa soothsayers’ predictions of starting teams for the first Test in Auckland. Ah yes, us and our sad little lists…
But what about those at the sharp end, the players? Are they, too, coming over all peculiar as they go into this Lions year? From experience, I’d say probably not, and certainly not this early on. Things have changed in home nations rugby over the past decade or so. There was a time when most of a Lions side were indeed shoo-ins, and those same keyboard warriors didn’t have to be Russell Grant to be 90% bang on with their predictions, as the proper players at the time stuck out like a fighter pilot’s thumbs amongst the general dross of the Five/Six Nations. And they were usually English. But all of a sudden Ireland got a bit of a clue, followed by Wales stumbling their way out of mediocrity in the mid-Noughties and even the Scots have decided to belatedly join the party.
What I’m saying is that there is now quality wherever you look and even amongst the top internationals, the only over-arching motivation through this season will be to train and work their balls off at their clubs. You then give yourself a chance to cement your spot in the national team, which in turn will give you a chance to impress whichever Antipodean happens to be picking the Lions squad this year. The days of knowing that selection was in the bag from day one because you were a ‘name’ or, even worse, because the selectors felt they had to fulfil some sort of quota from each country – and those players definitely know who they are! – are long gone.
Having said all that, maybe I’m being a little naive in my opinion of those at the peak of the game. I was one of those simple souls who just put his head down, got on with it and didn’t think about selection, whether for the Lions or any other team, probably because I never felt I deserved it.
But I’m sure there are guys who are more ‘holistic’ in their approach to success in a Lions year. It is completely foreign to most players but there are a few who actively seek media attention, to what end I’m never quite sure. You have to assume that in their heads a bigger public profile equates to actually being a better player, but unfortunately for them the hard-nosed coaches on the scene these days are unlikely to be swayed by a few puff pieces. Performance is all that really matters to them.
On the flip-side, there are players who use any interview to reinforce how very ‘umble they are, and how all they care about is getting better as a player and, dare they say it, a person. Very laudable but also perhaps a subtler way of putting yourself in selectors’ sights, and certainly liable to get any armchair cynic’s BS detector twitching.
Team-mates notice this stuff, and are duty bound by rugby law to get stuck into any player who sticks his head above the parapet too often. But one area which can be exploited without ridicule is the team huddle. What is said there is subject to a sort of parliamentary privilege, and savvy candidates will use this freedom to put forward their case as a leader of men, an influencer of teams. You know, British & Irish Lions material. And if television cameras happen to be hovering nearby, so much the better.