Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Last Year's Lions

Those three Scots who did make Sir Clive Woodward's initial panel of forty-four souls to journey to the Land of the Silver Cloud are probably too grateful to be there to entertain any thoughts of foreboding. Perhaps this just as well - when the fate of Sir Patrick Spens awaits you, it's best not to find out until the ship starts to take on water.

'Mak ready, mak ready, my merry men a'!
Our gude ship sails the morn.''
Now ever alack, my master dear,
I fear a deadly storm.

'I saw the new moon late yestreen
Wi' the auld moon in her arm;
And if we gang to sea, master,
I fear we'll come to harm.'

Anybody with any knowledge of rugby history should fear coming to harm once the Lions arrive in New Zealand. There have been twelve tours to New Zealand by the British Isles since Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury brought 21 players from England, Scotland and Wales (the British Isle?) to New Zealand in 1888, and only one out of those twelve tours has been a winner. Which means that the current 2/5 price on New Zealand handing the Lions their customary trimming looks just about right.

There has been the usual "Hurrah for Sir Clive and our 'white clad warriors'" from the English media, and an unsurprising yet still depressing outbreak of shoneenism in the Irish Times, where rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley piece declares he has "no quibbles" with Sir Clive's selection.

An Spailpín has a quibble. Sir Clive is living in the past. Since he was appointed as Lions coach, it now seems clear that the former Leicester outside centre has been grim set and determined to put Lions jersies on his World Cup winning team, and damn all evidence, provided by either time's fell hand or a Welsh rugby renaissance, to the contrary.

Should we consider ourselves lucky he didn't pick the "proven experience" of Ronald Cove-Smith, who captained the first British Isles Rugby Union Team to be named Lions in 1924 in South Africa? Nigel Melville writes in this morning's Guardian that "after all, you do not win clinching Test matches in Auckland in the driving rain with a bunch of fresh-faced kids who have never done it before." Actually, Nigel, you do not win clinching Test matches in Auckland in the driving rain at all. Full stop end of story next topic, whether you've got kids or fully-grown goats.

Only one Lions tour has been successful in New Zealand, and, in this this grim age of professionalism, the chances of a touring team like that assembling the same level of élan are slim indeed. One thing that Sir Clive could learn from the 1971 tour is that the 1971 tourists did not make the mistake of trying to mix it upfront with the All Blacks. Historically, the South Africans would be considered the more powerful pack down through the years, but it's akin to asking if you'd prefer to be hit in the small of the back by the 6.25 to Cork or the 7.15 to Tralee. Either of 'em will smash you up plenty.

The only way to play the All-Blacks is to play an expansive game, and pray you get enough points on the board to force them to try and play equally expansively just to catch up. Other than that, you will be coursed like a hare and in Eden Park, where you may run but you cannot hide.

It seems to this particular Spailpín that Sir Clive decided after England won that World Cup that he would remember his men when this tour came around. It's interesting though that he would drop Neil Back as being too old at 34 the season after England won the World Cup and then consider him just about perfect at 36 for a professional Lions tour to New Zealand.

This will be one of the last Lions tours, I fear. The Lions were always about glory, and glory is too hard for accountants to put a price on. It's a pity that the Lions are going, and it's a pity if their last hurrah is to be buried in Christchurch and Auckland.