SAY the word Lion and a lot of people will think ‘King of the Jungle’. The Oxford Dictionary says a person with lionesque qualities is: brave, strong or fierce.
There is no definition for a British and Irish Lion. Nor is there a collective noun, like a crew of hungry four-legged lions about to decapitate an antelope, are known as a pride.
I humbly suggest that the collective noun for British and Irish Lion be “an embarrassment”.
Yeah, it’s Lions year again, or the full title: The Quad-Annual Beano South of the Tropic of Capricorn Where Rugger Folk from the Northern Reaches Make a Show of Themselves.
We’re not just talking about stubble-stroking ‘Lions Man’, a character who greets every half-useful boxkick with: “He’s playing himself onto the plane.”
That’s embarrassing enough, but the real humiliation is enacted between the plane leaving Heathrow and when it returns to British and Irish Lions airspace.
In general, the pride of four nations gets shredded by the pride of one.
The last three Lions tours have culminated in defeats to South Africa (2009), New Zealand (2005) and Australia (2001). To put that in some context, that’s England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with a combined rugby-playing population of 226,297 according to the IRB, taking on the comparative might of South Africa (109,878), New Zealand (27, 374) and Australia (39,380).
Are you embarrassed Lions fans? Well, you should be. Losing to a team that is picked from a pool less than one quarter as big as yours is a cause for genuine sporting shame. It’d be a bit like Leitrim not just turning over Mayo on a regular basis — but expecting to … With Mayo believing they are a band of vagabond brothers thrown together to tackle a mightier foe.
Oh, but the Lions don’t play with each other every week. They have to forge partnerships and learn all these various calls and that.
Yeah, I’m sure that’s really hard. The only Lions call that’s worth a shake is 99. At least back then the Lions was a more honest concept: A drinking tour for amateurs with a bit of rugby and a load of rumbles thrown into the mix.
Now it’s a drinking tour for fund-managers with such a crisis of identity that they feel the need to pull branded poppy shirts over their sugar-guts and bellow “LIIIIIONS” at the indifferent natives of some South Island New Zealand fishing outpost — whose local club have quite often just beaten the mid-week team of these jungle-lord tourists. Only they probably won’t be writing plays and selling DVDs about it 30 years later.
Ah, DVDs. Every so often — as in twice in the 39 years since Willie John McBride and 99 call often — the Lions really embarrass themselves by winning one of these series. Well, the winning itself isn’t the shameful part — that should happen all the time — the reaction to the victory is the cause for mortification.
Is there a rugby aficionado in these islands who hasn’t worn out the tape of Living with Lions, who doesn’t know the “this is your Everest boys” speech by rote?
Can you imagine this happening the other way round? New Zealand, Australia, South Africa combining to take on, say, England, beating them and then making a documentary for posterity’s sake?
As our recently-deceased former PM would put it: “No! No! No!”
First up, they would have more esteem as rugby nations than to bunk up with somebody else.
If they ever did — if they were forced by some international convention or, more likely, by a marketing directive from a major sponsor — they would show up, win in emphatic style and then take the next plane south, perhaps stopping off for a pitcher or two of snakebite at the Shepherd’s Bush Walkabout.
There wouldn’t be any selection debates starting 12 months out. You’d hear no bellyaching about having to blend with new teammates and “learn new patterns of play going forward. Line speed. Line break. Bodies on the line. Great bunch of guys. Banter!”
Even in the modern pro-sports environment, where hyperbole is the first language, exaggeration the modest sister tongue, the Lions tour takes some beating. I cannot think of anything else where so much is made of so little.
A moveable monument to nostalgia, whose only modern value is to illustrate the gulf in class between southern and northern hemisphere rugby — this spectacle ran out of road a long time ago.
If somebody took the next step and worked out why we are so off the pace, why we are so rarely out-numbered but so frequently out-gunned, that might be worth getting excited about.
Just maybe a part of the problem is that we are still in thrall to a remnant of the amateur era, a post-season tear-up, that somehow takes precedence over the individual vitality of each of the home nations who, when combined, are worth so much less than the sum of their parts. Enough of it all.
Lions to the slaughter.