It is one of the sports world’s oldest and most venerable traditions, going back 129 years. It involves some of the best athletes in the world who travel halfway across the globe. It is a rugby tour of New Zealand by the British and Irish Lions. The Lions assemble every four years and are drawn from the best players of the national teams of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales — which currently are ranked second, third, sixth and seventh in the world, respectively. The tours rotate among New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, meaning that only once every 12 years will the Lions play the New Zealand national team, the All Blacks, who are ranked No. 1 in the world. That matchup happened in June. One of the challenges the Lions face is to unite players who compete furiously against each other under their own national flags for the three years and 10 months when they are not on a Lions tour. Such a team of rivals conjures up scenes from the movie “Miracle” when USA Hockey team coach Herb Brooks tries to get his players, drawn from various U.S. universities to accept that they are now part of one team and one locker room. The Lions’ red jerseys are symbolic of this blending, featuring a badge that includes the crests of the four unions.
Then of course there is the physical test. The first tour by the team in 1888 involved sailing across the world to Australia and New Zealand and spending a year playing various teams there. These days the tour is a more manageable, though still physically taxing, series of 10 matches in five weeks, including three against the All Blacks. Picture an NFL team playing 10 games in five weeks, all on the road, as they continue to experiment and find combinations that work. It’s an audacious undertaking.
The first test match of the latest tour took place at famed Eden Park in Auckland, and I was there to see the cohesion of the All Blacks make the difference in a 30-15 victory. One of the special things about a Lions tour is that so many tickets are made available to the visiting team, and perhaps 30 percent of Eden Park was filled with red-jacketed Lions supporters.
Some 20,000 such supporters traveled to New Zealand on various tour packages, following the team everywhere it went. The touring Lions supporters have to undergo the same metamorphoses that the players do in the locker room, identifying with this newly formed team. On a tour of Hobbiton on the North Island, the guide would move people from place to place by reference to their nationalities. When he referred to several Welshmen as “Team Wales,” they corrected him and said, “It’s actually Team Lions.” Wow. The Kool-Aid has been swallowed.
The Lions always receive a warm, respectful reception in the host country. Seeing that, plus the fierce competition at the highest level, confirms that this repurposed vestige of a bygone era should carry on in perpetuity. Fittingly perhaps, the three-match test series ended with a win for the All Blacks, a win for the Lions and a draw. To be continued in 12 years.
Bob Latham is a partner at the law firm Jackson Walker, L.L.P., and a World Rugby board member. A compilation of his best columns titled “Winners & Losers: Rants, Riffs and Reflections on the World of Sports,” is available for purchase at amazon.com.