It only comes around every four years, but for professional rugby players from Britain and Ireland, being selected for the Lions is an achievement that is often considered the pinnacle of their careers. Legends are made, dreams are shattered, but more importantly, despite the ever-changing climate that world rugby finds itself in, the Lions have survived and thrived in an era where traditional values are often neglected in favour of what suits bean counters, broadcasters and those with no real connection to the game.
The last two Lions trips to Australia and New Zealand, due to an excellence in performance on the field, saw the Lions garner an unparalleled level of support – both back home and overseas – which demonstrated that a unique concept of uniting our home nations and Ireland really is a rugby treasure – and one that should be treated as such.
However, it seems this has not mattered a jot to the global administrators of our game who are determined to make everything stand in line. So when the Lions’ schedule for their 2021 trip to South Africa was announced this week, there were only eight matches – opposed to ten in 2017 – and only two mid-week warm-up games too.
A more uniformed schedule, which has been slowly rolled out over the past couple of years for international and domestic matches, is very difficult to achieve when rugby is played at different times of the year by different competitions, but that hasn’t stopped World Rugby ploughing on regardless. These changes will see the Premiership final pushed back to mid-June for 2020, with the 2021 showpiece not taking place until June 26 – almost a month after its traditional slot.
It is understood that the Lions’ top brass asked the English power brokers to move the final back to allow extra preparation time as it would be a real shock if some of those who pull on the Red Rose don’t feature prominently for the tourists, who will once again be coached by Warren Gatland. But a short, and rather blunt statement from Premiership Rugby revealed the subject wasn’t up for discussion and that drawbridge was pulled up rather sharpish.
So Gatland will have little preparation time with his key players and a hoped for pre-departure friendly against the Barbarians will give the New Zealander, who relinquished his role as Wales chief after the World Cup, no real idea who will make his starting line-up for the first Test against the Springboks in Johannesburg on July 24. Granted, there are five matches between the tour opener against the Stormers and a first clash with the world champions, but even so, this is a vastly reduced time frame to prepare a team to ready themselves for the physical demands of elite Test match rugby.
Another part of the Lions’ preparation will be disturbed in 2021 as the unique concept of taking a squad capable of filling two sides should no longer be needed. Despite battling it out to ultimately gain one of 23 jerseys to win a place in the opening Test match, some players have gone on a Lions trip knowing full well that they will play a supporting role only. But instead of baulking at carrying the drinks on a Saturday, those who played almost exclusively in mid-week games provided vital support and team spirit that doesn’t exist anywhere else. A smaller squad could in some respects make things easier for Gatland in terms of selection as he will select fewer bodies, although it would be wrong to think this move will also help player welfare too.
As it stands, barring any kind of injury or dramatic loss of form, some of the West Country’s best will be given the nod by Gatland. For example, Exeter quartet Stuart Hogg, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade would almost certainly be selected if Gatland named a Lions squad right now. The same could be said for Bath’s back row sensation Sam Underhill. Others will no doubt push themselves into contention from our region, whilst others will fall away before 2021.
Whoever is selected, it will push their mental and physical capabilities to the absolute maximum as any player who boards the plane at Heathrow could conceivably play for a year virtually non-stop. Quite how those who try to emphasise welfare can justify 42 days after the final Test against the Springboks at the iconic Ellis Park stadium on August 7 before Premiership rugby kicks off again on September 18 is anyone’s guess. Surprisingly, though, Gatland appears to be toeing the party line for now anyway and was in upbeat mood when the schedule for his third Lions trip was revealed on Tuesday.
“I am absolutely thrilled with how this schedule looks,” he said. “Touring South Africa is always a huge challenge, not only from a rugby perspective but also in terms of the venues and the conditions facing the players.
“We are very comfortable that three of the games, two of which are Test matches, will be played at altitude. Our schedule falls in a way to allow us to start at sea level before building up and acclimatising to the unique environment that playing at altitude presents.
“Ensuring the team are absolutely primed for the Test matches is a critical element of any Lions tour, and I am confident the quality of opposition we will face in the opening weeks will get us ready to take on the Springboks. The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers are all tough sides and present different challenges, which is exactly what we want.
“Moreover, the venues we have agreed open up the matches to a vast audience and will undoubtedly provide an unforgettable experience for the players and travelling supporters alike.
“We are very much looking forward to touring this wonderful country.”
The 2021 trip for the Lions will be their 13th against the Springboks, with the hosts prevailing on eight occasions whilst the men in red have been victorious four times – with one shared series. Since South Africa were readmitted to sporting competition after apartheid was abolished in the early 90s, the Lions have faced the Sprinboks twice in 1997 and 2009, with each team winning a series each.
South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus, like Gatland, lauded the tour as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for his World Cup winners. He also laid bare the challenge that they face against a team that defeated Australia in 2013 and drew with New Zealand in 2017. “There are players who have been to three Rugby World Cups and finished their careers with a winner’s medal yet never got to play against the Lions,” he said.
“They only come around every 12 years for our players and only a few of them ever have the privilege of wearing the Springbok jersey in a Lions series.
“The Lions have not lost a series since they were last here a decade ago and they will present a next-level challenge in 18 months’ time.
“Warren Gatland is a massively experienced and astute coach with a phenomenal record with the Lions and the rugby experience for our players and public will rival that of a Rugby World Cup.
“The Lions performed extremely well on their previous two tours [in Australia and New Zealand] and will no doubt relish the opportunity to add the Springboks’ scalp to their belt.
“They will operate like a well-oiled machine and we will have to work very hard to match them in every department, on and off the field.”
Time away from competitive action could, as Erasmus suggests, be pivotal for the Lions’ chances of success again and despite factors contriving against them, if Gatland and his team remain unbeaten for a third consecutive series, it could rank as their greatest triumph of all.