London: 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 Telfer whether he wanted video cameras in the Lions’ Cape Town hotel to record what was going on before they went out to face the world champion Springboks at Newlands in 1997, 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 of the inside track of that Lions tour has become a best-seller. And Telfer was the unwitting star. His exhortation to the forwards is the stuff of legend, a motivational masterclass, suitably peaking with the claim that this was the Lions’ “(expletive) 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 very survival of the Lions is at stake.
The proposal that Lions schedules be trimmed from 10 games — one of the central tenets in the discussions to agree on a so-called global season — to eight would render tours unworkable, unviable 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, 11 in 2005 on the last visit to New Zealand, and 10 again for the most recent tours to South Africa in 2009 and, latterly, Australia. Why risk diluting something that has never held more appeal? The Lions is a point of difference in a familiar landscape, a four-yearly diversion from the 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 Graham Henry, when he expressed his disappointment that the experience had not lived up to expectation. It was a back-handed compliment. He had wanted so much for the trip to be brilliant and it had not been. Henry 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 do not do it for free, and nor should they, but if that day ever came to pass there would 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 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 together. Going into the tour the expectation was that the props would be England’s Jason Leonard and Graham Rowntree. Instead, after a mauling by Northern Transvaal, the perspective changed. Rather than meet Springbok bulk with bulk, the Lions switched strategy and went with Ireland prop Paul Wallace and the relatively diminutive Tom Smith. The ploy worked. 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.
The switch from bitter rival to brother-in-arms is not a straightforward process. How will Jonny Gray and Courtney Lawes be feeling about each other as they line up opposite each other at Twickenham on Saturday? Or Owen Farrell and Huw Jones in the midfield? Or Rory Best and Dylan Hartley the following weekend in Dublin. Likewise Farrell again and Jonathan 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.