Mick Cleary: Survival of Lions at stake if tour schedules cut back

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The Lions played 11 games when last in New Zealand in 2005 but may have a shorter itinerary on future tours. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The Lions played 11 games when last in New Zealand in 2005 but may have a shorter itinerary on future tours. Photo / Brett Phibbs

No wonder Jim Telfer raised an eyebrow. The subject was not the Twickenham hordes or the persona of the English but the British and Irish Lions.

There are many who have helped shape and express what the Lions are all about. Telfer is very much to the forefront of that debate, even if inadvertently.

If you had asked the former Scotland national coach, and a 1966 Lion to New Zealand before coaching them on the 1983 tour there, whether he wanted video cameras in the Lions' Cape Town hotel before his team went out to face the world champion Springboks at Newlands in 1997 to record what was going on, you might imagine that the suggestion would have got short shrift.

But those were the days of nascent professionalism and the big buck was already starting to hold sway. The DVD inside track of that Lions tour has become a best-seller. And Telfer was the unwitting star. His exhortation to his forward pack is the stuff of legend, a motivational master-class, suitably peaking with the claim that this was the Lions' "f****** Everest".

If Telfer has any more stirring words to deliver to raise a warrior-army of resistance, then he ought to unload them now for the survival of the Lions is at stake. A proposal that Lions schedules be trimmed from 10 games - one of the central tenets in the discussions to agree on a calendar for the so-called global season - to eight would render tours unworkable, not viable and utterly worthless. Beating the Boks in Cape Town 20 years ago was a doddle by comparison.

The Lions' itinerary has been gradually clipped. Martin Johnson's Lions played 13 matches in 1997. Four years later in Australia, there were only 10 matches on the fixture list, back to 11 in 2005 on the last visit to New Zealand, and then 10 again for the most recent tours to South Africa in 2009 and, latterly, Australia. It is 10 again in New Zealand this year.

Why on earth risk diluting something that has never held more appeal? The Lions are a point of difference in a familiar landscape, a four-yearly diversion from the usual straight-and-narrow terrain inhabited by player and fan alike. It is rare in professional sport that an entity should be so universally loved.

I have yet to come across a player who does not want to go on a Lions tour. The only negative comment I can recall was made by England wing, Ben Cohen, following the 2001 trip under the auspices of Graham Henry, expressing his disappointment that the experience had not lived up to expectation. It was a back-handed compliment being paid by Cohen. He has wanted so much for the trip to be brilliant and it hadn't been.

Henry himself was to later admit he got the Lions concept all wrong. But nary a peep from any player since. Quite the opposite. Never mind the fatigue. Never mind the arduous nature of the challenge. They don't do it for free, and nor should they, but if that day ever came to pass, there will be still be a line of Irish, English, Scots and Welsh players stretching out of the recruitment office.

Eight games (with three tests) is simply not enough. Even with a decent run-in to the first test, the odds of successfully contesting a series against any one of the Southern Hemisphere powers, who will have been together as a fighting unit for probably two years or more, are high. Shrink that preparation time any further and the task is impossible.

The 1997 tour to South Africa is a case study in the benefits of time spent together. Going into the tour, the feeling was that the props would be the England duo of Jason Leonard and Graham Rowntree. Instead, after a mauling by Northern Transvaal up on the veldt, the perspective changed.

Rather than meet bulk with Springbok bulk, the Lions switched strategy and rewarded the efforts of Ireland prop Paul Wallace and the relatively diminutive Tom Smith. The ploy worked. Their 2-1 series win would be monumental.

But there would be no scope for that to happen again under the proposed strictures. Teams need time. To get to know each other as people first and foremost. Then as players.

That switch from raw-edged rival to brother-in-arms is not a straightforward process.

How were Jonny Gray and Courtney Lawes feeling about each other when Scotland and England lined up opposite each other at Twickenham earlier today? Or Owen Farrell and Huw Jones in the midfield? Or Rory Best and Dylan Hartley next weekend in Dublin, likewise Farrell again and Johnny Sexton, Lions in 2013 in Australia, fierce adversaries as the 2017 Six Nations comes to a resounding finale with a title to be won and places on the Lions tour itself to be clinched?

It all takes time to make it come together. And time is what the Lions are not being given. You can only urge that they think again.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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