* required fields
By The Roar
Fan article originally published on The Roar's sports opinion website. Submit your own Rugby article to The Roar for potential publication on Rugby.com.au/Wallabies
Rugby threw the baby out with the bathwater when it finally embraced professionalism in the mid-1990s.
The game had long expressed itself at the highest level through long tours and Test series, a tradition already disturbed by the advent of the World Cup in 1987.
When professionalism, funded by big TV money, arrived on the scene, something had to give and tours took the hit.
Existing contractual obligations were fulfilled. The All Blacks went on their last (eight match) trek to South Africa in 1996 and finally, after almost 80 years of trying, won a Test series in the Republic. Who can forget the reaction of Sean Fitzpatrick at the end of the second Test?
The Wallabies toured the UK at the end of 1996 and the All Blacks followed suit in 1997. South Africa went on their last tour of Britain in 1998.
But the great days of long tours by South Africa to New Zealand, for example, or Australia to South Africa, had already been consigned to the history books.
It looked as though southern hemisphere rugby in particular had settled into a pattern of Super Rugby, followed by hit-and-run visits from northern hemisphere teams playing a couple of Tests in the June window, followed by the Tri-Nations (now the Rugby Championship) and then the flying visits by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to the north for a blizzard of Tests.
They were tours in name only.
With one glorious exception: the British and Irish Lions. Since 1888 the best players in the United Kingdom and Ireland have headed to the southern hemisphere every few years to take on the might of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
When rugby went professional it was hard to see how such a seeming anachronism could survive, but survive it has.
The first Lions tour of the professional era, the trip to South Africa in 1997, was a success on the field and a great money-spinner. Subsequent Lions excursions to Australia in 2001, New Zealand in 2005 and South Africa in 2009 failed on the rugby field but still attracted a huge amount of fan support and more than paid their way.
And so we come to the 2013 tour of Australia by the British and Irish Lions, a tour as eagerly awaited as any in the old days.
It’s not much of a tour compared with the adventures of the 1950s. The 1950 Lions played 23 matches in New Zealand, six in
Australia and a game against Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on the way home. The amateur Lions were away from home for six months in those days of sea travel.
But Lions tours were shrinking before professionalism; the last amateur Lions in 1993 played just 13 matches in New Zealand. The established pattern now seems for Lions tours to run for no more than 10 matches, probably more than enough for players exhausted by the endless European season.
What can we expect to see from the 2013 Lions? In the good old days, as seen through rose-coloured glasses, Lions teams were renowned for running the ball.
One veteran and respected Australian rugby writer indulged the romantic side of his nature in a Sydney Morning Herald piece recently, saying: “The Lions are the one international side that embraces the running game as an end in itself. That is why they are revered as a special team.”
The writer in question was probably lucky enough to see the great 1950s backline, containing players such as Jack Kyle, Bleddyn Williams, Jack Matthews and Lewis Jones. I’m old enough to remember the 1959 Lions and their great running backs Dicky Jeeps, Bev Risman, Dave Hewitt, Tony O’Reilly and Peter Jackson.
The greatest Lions teams of all, the 1971 team who beat the All Blacks in New Zealand and the 1974 team who went unbeaten through a long tour of South Africa, also had great backs, but their success in the Tests was founded on uncompromising forward play and astute tactical kicking (Barry John in the first Test against the All Blacks in 1971 gave a master class in kicking).
The 2013 tourists are a team of giants. Centre Jamie Roberts, for example, is the same height and slightly heavier than the biggest forward in the 1959 Lions, lock Rhys Williams. Even halfback Mike Phillips is as big as Williams.
As a thoroughly modern, professional team, the Lions will surely play to their perceived strengths. They might run the ball in the tour matches, but I’ll be surprised if the Tests will be anything other than brutal and attritional affairs, probably less spectacular than the 2001 Tests.
With all those Welshmen in the team, I just hope we see something more riveting than the Wallabies-Wales series last year. The third Test at the Sydney Football Stadium just about killed my lifelong enthusiasm for rugby.
The Guardian’s Paul Rees has written about the 2013 Lions pack laying the foundations for success but the “latent artistry” in the backs needing to be set free. I don’t associate the likes of Jamie Roberts and George North with latent artistry, but we’ll see. I also hope it’s not a tour too far for Brian O’Driscoll.
The Wallabies will be under pressure to play ball-in-hand rugby rather than a kicking game, as though the two styles are mutually incompatible. The forwards will really have to aim up before any consideration can be given to running the ball.
For what it’s worth, I think the Lions will win the series 2-1, barring injuries to key players. I wouldn’t put money on it, however, and I hope I’m wrong.
But as brief as this one is, there’s nothing like a Lions tour. We only get here once every 12 years, so let’s savour it.
*Disclaimer - Views expressed within this story are not necessarily the views of the ARU or rugby.com.au