English rugby writer Mick Cleary reveals the Irish-inspired formula needed for the Lions to succeed in New Zealand.
The Lions on Mission Impossible to New Zealand next year? Not any more. And for those upbeat tidings, we look not just to Chicago but also to Wembley.
Soldier Field did stage significant action at the weekend but so, too, did English football's national stadium. Not so much for the game itself, lively and engaging though it was as South Africa spared themselves further angst with a late rally to snatch a draw, 31-31, against the Barbarians, but for the manner in which the Baa-Baas came to the party. That is where interest lies for those with the British and Irish Lions at heart, as it does also, of course, when weighing up events in the Windy City, blowing those feel-good Irish vibes back across the Atlantic.
The common denominator was that we saw the value of character in play.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt referenced it when assessing his side's historic achievement in overcoming, finally and joyously, the All Blacks at the 29th attempt and after a mere 111 years of exertion. And character does not mean passion and fury and commitment, even if residues of those elements are to be found within each player. No, it is about self-belief and sang-froid, of trusting in talent within and talent all round, in not cracking under pressure, in not making daft decisions, in not doubting the game plan or the cause. Ireland had been within a credible shot at glory against New Zealand three years earlier at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Yet they blew it, the All Blacks scoring with a multi-phase sequence from deep in the last play of the match. Character, that's what the Kiwis had that day. They had the faith and they came through together.
In an enormously less pressurised environment, that too is what the Barbarians managed. In a few laugh-filled days they showed that it is possible to bring together a random bunch of blokes and meld it into a cohesive force. Sure, a few glasses helped that process, a night or two of fun and frolics at the start of the week, but there is little harm in that if it produces the desired end, a team who want to play for each other.
And that is a lesson that the Lions need to take on board, Irish science and craft and rigour blended with the Baa-Baas' musketeer, one-for-all attitude.
The launch of the Lions jersey last week was predictably lavish and overblown, as if the garment itself had some special power contained within the fabric. It is the blokes who will fill the shirt that will make the difference and how they are treated. That process is integral to their success or failure, as, tellingly, head coach, Warren Gatland realises and appreciates.
It is time to stop belly-aching about the sadistic schedule that the Lions face - yes, there's another reference to it - and embrace the experience for what it is. Few gave Ireland a prayer of toppling the seemingly all-conquering All Blacks. Yet that is what they did. Few, again in an admittedly less scrutinised context, would imagine that a Barbarians line-up of lesser-known figures than is the norm would be able to put together such slick and purposeful sequences of play, and one of their five tries, the first of a brace scored by Aussie wing Luke Morahan, would adorn any try-of-the-season listings.
A Lions tour has always been an improbable venture, rendered all the more so in the professional era when the opposition has been honed to within an inch of perfection through the numerous sessions that they have spent in each other's company across a couple of years. But this is what makes it so special and so appealing, primarily to the players themselves. They do not want it to be an ordinary experience. They do not want it to be a run-of-the-mill build-up as per every other international stint of preparation.
They want to do something different, to share rooms with one-time rivals, to muck through it all, to go from Saturday-to-Wednesday-to-Saturday games if needs be, to feel stiff and sore but also bloomin' well fulfilled. Above all, they want it to be testing and challenging at every turn, to be arduous and draining, to be rugby's Everest. Otherwise, what sets it apart? The Lions is a Barbarians set-up in a much more serious context.
Gatland is well aware of that. He has had his fill too of the gripes and grumbles. It is time to get on with it and take it for what it is - a fabulously implausible project.
The weekend's action has given cause for hope, great hope, in that several players such as Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray, full-back Rob Kearney, centre Robbie Henshaw, newcomer hooker Rory Best, all showed signs of not just competing at the most exalted of levels, but of relishing the fact. They made the All Blacks look what they are - good rugby players, exceptional in some instances, but as prone to error and self-doubt as any.
Ireland induced mistakes by sustained pressure, exactly as the Kiwis have done to so many teams down the years. Murray was magnificent, hounding Aaron Smith to distraction, while the return to prominence of Kearney signalled that this is a season when the veterans are intent on one last furious rage against the light.
Chicago proved to be host to the miraculous last week, with Ireland's feat following hard on the heels of the Cubs' historic World series baseball victory.
Perhaps Wales should organise a game there.