1 Jun 2017

Lions tours - a cash safari since Victorian times

12:48 pm on 1 June 2017

You probably have heard by now there's a pretty big rugby tour starting this weekend. If you're a fan, chances are you've been hearing about it for the past 12 years.

The waiting will come to an end on Saturday night, when The British & Irish Lions open their odyssey of Aotearoa in Whangarei.

The British & Irish Lions touring party before departing for New Zealand.

The British and Irish Lions left Britain, and arrived in Auckland on Wednesday Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

There's three Tests and a game against the Māori All Blacks that many have already presumed the Lions don't have a chance in. Then there's fixtures against the five Super Rugby teams as well - the same five enjoying an unprecedented run of domination in the competition.

Criticism has been levelled at the draw, not only from British pundits but also a great deal of Kiwi rugby fans too. There is a very real prospect that by 9 July, the Lions will be going home with one of the worst tour records in the history of rugby. The most cynical have labeled it nothing more than a bloated, overhyped cash grab.

However, being a purely commercial venture is probably the most traditional thing about this Lions tour.

Rugby is a game that dines out on tradition. From the storied and sepia-toned pre-war team photos on the club room walls to the badly knotted ties being done in a damp changing room post-game, everything has been passed on by the players that have gone before.

Wellington v British and Irish Lions in Wellington's Westpac Stadium during their tour of New Zealand 2005.

The Lions packed out Wellington's stadium on their tour in 2005. Photo: Photosport NZ

Touring is one of those traditions. But these days, the Lions are the only ones left who are interested in traveling the length of New Zealand, South Africa or Australia - which is odd because traditionally they haven't had much luck results-wise. But when it started, way back in 1888, the whole point was to make a bit of coin.

The first tour by the forerunners of the Lions was an unsanctioned business venture to the Antipodes in the era of Jack the Ripper. In purely Victorian fashion, the team lost its captain in a fatal rowing accident while they were on the Australian leg of the tour. The backers took a bath financially, with part of the fallout being the formation of the professional Rugby League seven years later.

Nonetheless, it set the groundwork for future British teams to make their way across the colonies and cemented the notion of touring into rugby's culture. It must be noted that it wasn't just one way traffic in those days - the 1888 NZ Natives side made a 107-game tour of the UK.

Nowadays, the monolithic insurance companies that will be on both teams' jerseys for the test matches will be sure this tour isn't a financial failure like the first one. Nor will the breweries, clothing retailers or breakfast food companies all cosied up to the All Blacks and Lions. The time the last amateur era tour rolled through NZ in 1994, match tickets cost around $10. Now you'll be lucky to get change from $500 for a decent seat at a Test.

The fact that the Lions are turning out against the Super Rugby sides, rather than provincial unions, has also been seen as a blow to the traditional values of our national game. Well, not really - touring sides of the past expected to face full-strength midweek teams to give them decent preparation for the upcoming Test matches.

British and Irish Lions' fans await their arrival at Auckland airport.

British and Irish Lions' fans await the team's arrival at Auckland airport. Photo: RNZ / Anusha Bradley

Which was fine, in the amateur era. But expecting a provincial union to be able to assemble a side at this time of year these days would be a waste of time and money. Given that the provinces of old more or less mirrored the strength of the Super sides now actually make their involvement more legitimate, not less.

Take the 1993 Auckland team that beat the Lions, which contained 13 All Blacks. Or the victorious 1966 Wellington side, who had defeated the Springboks the year before. The fact that the sides that the Lions will be facing are incredibly tough is nothing new.

Lions fans during the British and Irish Lions v Bay of Plenty rugby match at Rotorua International Stadium on 4 June during their tour of New Zealand 2005.

Lions fans during the British and Irish Lions v Bay of Plenty rugby match at Rotorua International Stadium on 4 June during their 2005 tour of New Zealand. Photo: Photosport NZ

So while this might be the last time a Lions tour happens, don't think the commercialism and schedule is trampling over any of our hallowed history. Besides, you know there'll be one tradition that Lions fans will definitely be keeping alive once they start losing - excuse-making.

Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the single highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game, and other topics, to anyone who'll care to listen.

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