Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Off-season rambles 2013

During the rugby season I get so used to having a match writeup to do for a Monday morning, I need something to fill the void over the summer months.  And so we have the HoR Off-Season Rambles series, which should take us up to the pre-season.
 
#1 - THE LIONS BRAND
 
What a glorious summer it has been here in Dublin.  Almost two weeks of the sun splitting the skies...time to hit the beach, fire up the barbeque and buy insane amounts of factor 50.
 
And as we rugby nuts soak up the rays, the end of the prolonged northern-hemisphere season gives us a chance to reflect on the near-ten months of top flight action that have just passed before us.
 
First I'd like to reflect on the most recent happening in the European rugby calendar, that of course being the tour of the "British & Irish Lions" to Australia.
 
The Lions tour is without doubt a phenomenon within the sport of rugby union.  Normally sporting competitions at the highest level involve a decent number of teams or individual players doing battle over a prize...in this case, there are only two.
 
And the uniqueness does not end there.  There is even a disparity in how the two teams are formed.  One is an existing Test side while the other can be best explained to an American sports fan as an "All-Star" team derived from four.
 
The make up of the Lions squad provides rugby fans with more debate fodder than perhaps they need, particularly in this age of the keyboard warrior. I make no apologies for the pun when I say that offering your opinion on this topic over the past 12 months was akin to putting your head in a lion's mouth because no matter how rational an explanation you give for your matchday 23, there is always some commenter there to rip your head off. Of course debate is part of what makes sport great...there would certainly be no point in running a fan site without it. But for the 2013 tour it wasn't just the makeup of the team that was subject to scrutiny.  As the popularity of the domestic game increases and the toll of the long season becomes greater, the actual existence of the tours themselves are put on the table, with the two extreme viewpoints being...
  1. Lions Tours are a relic of the amateur age and have no place in the modern era.
  2. Lions Tours are actually more important to the sport of rugby union than the World Cup.
Of course if I wanted to go for my full keyboard warrior's badge I'd pick one of those views and pen a rant which made it look like there was absolutely no room for debate.  Sorry guys, but I'm a little bit boring and see rugby's reality as falling somewhere in between, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm sitting on the fence.
 
I'll start with the second point.  It is one I have seen made by many on twitter as the most recent tour came to an end.  And I'm sorry if this is how you feel, but from where I'm standing that is absolute rubbish.
 
I suppose it all boils down to what you want from a sport.  Do you want to see the game played at its best possible level or are you willing to put a roadblock in that quest by insisting that it first must conform to a set of pre-conditions, ie that only players from a limited amount of nations can play it?
 
When you make an effort to view rugby union from the outside, one word features more than any other - "elitism".  The "class" definition of that word can be a debate for another day...for now I'm more concerned with country of origin.
 
It may be true that the game is taken most seriously where the Six Nations and Rugby Championship take place, but if we continue to pretend that the game only "really" exists there while the rest of the world must look in from the outside, we in turn continue to ignore the obstacles to expanding the game. 
 
Those obstacles are inevitable going to lead to a bottleneck which holds back countries with the talent like Georgia and Samoa, and also countries with the money like Japan and the USA, from taking the sport to new exciting levels.
 
And remember...I may have been born in the US but my rugby history goes right back to my early school days here in Ireland and I am painfully aware that should those nations improve it would be increasingly more difficult for the boys in green to consider themselves at the top of the game.
 
So on that side of the debate, I have to say no...a series involving five nations, three tests and just two teams absolutely cannot be considered more important than one involving all the rugby playing nations of the world that spans a few years.
 
But does this mean the Lions are irrelevant?  Hell, no.
 
I may be a progressive, but I don't see why change has to happen while abandoning the traditions of the game.  The Lions Tour falls exactly halfway through a World Cup cycle.  If it is to continue, that is exactly where it should be. 
 
And overall, what better way to present the game to the world...first, a tour which harks back to the game's very origins, then two years later, a tournament which brings the best in the world together so we can actually see which nation is the best fair and square.
 
So when it comes to the "status quo", I'd be happy for things to stay as they are...yes, there should be a Lions Tour in 2017 and all going well I'll be there for it.
 
Where we need to have the discussion, however, is in how the tour is run.
Notice how I have gone this far into the piece without once mentioning a specific incident from the 2013 tour.  That is because I'm conscious that some of my views on changing the tour are directly linked to Warren Gatland's decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll.
 
Well, you'll just have to trust me when I say that my views would have been the same even if he had O'Driscoll as his tour captain and starting every match down there.
 
First of all, in interviews after the 3rd test Gatland expressed a willingness to lead the squad to New Zealand in 2017.  As far as I'm concerned, that shouldn't be possible.  Playing on multiple tours is one thing, but as they come but once every four years then the coaching ticket should come from a wider pool of talent.
 
And before you ask, yes, ideally that restriction should extend to captains, which if applied to 2013 would have ruled both O'Driscoll and O'Connell out of contention.
 
My reasoning for these restriction is that if we are to believe all the hype from Sky Sports on the Lions tradition, it is about more than just one individual.  In fact, this is an argument that was made by many about O'Driscoll missing the third test.
 
But what if Gatland leads Wales to further Six Nations titles in 2014 through 2017 together with a decent showing at the 2015 World Cup, you say?  Shouldn't matter...the tour is supposed to be more about the traditions, right?  And what does it say about the state of the game in Britain & Ireland that we can only find one decent coach to represent eight years of rugby? I suppose we'll just have to see how the next four years pan out...many would have thought Declan Kidney was the favourite to be leading this year's Lions as the last tour came to an end.
 
Of course that's not the only change I would make.  Another would involve expanding the Lions concept around the world and allowing more countries to experience the Tour concept.
 
When the Lions hammered the Country Bumpkin XV on this tour (or whatever they were called) someone made the brilliant suggestion that it would have made more sense for Gatland's men to face a Pacific Islands selection.  I think this idea can be taken to another level.
 
How about every Lions year more representative teams are formed around the world?  Assuming we want to promote the game, let's increase the standard at which they play. As well as a Pacific Island XV from Samoa, Fiji & Tonga...what about a team combining USA, Canada & Japan?  Or Georgia, Romania & Russia?  Uruguay, Brazil & Chile?  Or all the African countries bar the Springboks?
 
One could tour alongside the Lions providing the host nation with a warmup test before the main series while the others could go to the remaining SANZAR nations.   Rather than telling the rest of the world they are excluded from the Lions idea because "that's just how rugby is", they instead could be given their own chance to play on a higher stage and experience tours and who knows, with the increase in standard there may even be a win or two.  That's allowed, right?
 
These are but a couple of ideas. No doubt there are more.  But overall the concept is one for tweaking, not scrapping in my book.  Will any changes be made by 2017? Right now, I'd have to say no.  I'm pretty sure that HSBC will continue their sponsorship, which means the tour will stop in Hong Kong once again, and it's more than likely the schedule will resemble this year's one very closely.
 
Will the results be the same?  Hmmm...it may be a long way out, but I very much doubt it.  Maybe Warren wouldn't mind so much if a "one-tour" restriction for coaches was brought in after all, as I really can't see the All Blacks being in a similar state of disarray to the Wallabies.
 
That won't stop me going though if the purse strings will allow it!
 
Next week, my take on the calls for a global rugby season. JLP
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