OPINION: The confirmation that the Lions intend to tour South Africa this summer fulfils my one wish – that it goes ahead this year.
The Lions are a touring entity, so actually playing games around South Africa maintains that sporting integrity, while going this year ensures that the institution will not jeopardise its long-term future by interfering with the build-up to the next Rugby World Cup.
It goes without saying that if they have to play in stadiums without fans, that will be far from ideal, but for anyone with any deep knowledge of the Lions, the modern tour featuring the so-called Red Wall of travelling fans is a relatively new phenomenon.
* South Africa declares intention to host British and Irish Lions rugby tour
* Why Alun Wyn Jones must lead the British and Irish Lions against South Africa
* British and Irish Lions rule out relocating Springboks tour to Australia
Clearly, we could have ensured that there were fans present had the games been played in either Australia or, perhaps, even the UK, but anyone who suggests that the television companies who lobbied for the tour to be in South Africa are the tail wagging the dog fundamentally misunderstand the beast that is the Lions.
And in many ways, South Africa in 1997 was the birthplace of today’s Lions.
Having been on Lions tours since 1974, I was struck by the massive difference between that tour to South Africa and all those I had experienced previously.
In 1997, the Lions revolution was televised. Sky’s determination to take the first Lions tour of the professional era seriously changed the institution for ever, and in that sense the modern Lions is a made-for-television event.
That 1997 tour was the first time every game was shown live, and every one was scheduled for 5pm in South Africa so that they could be viewed in prime time back in the UK and Ireland.
It helped, of course, that it was a winning Lions tour, but it was also the first tour with significant numbers of tourists, and not just for the tests.
Because of the lack of jet-lag, rugby fans could fly down overnight on a Thursday or Friday and be back at their desks on a Monday or Tuesday after a long weekend. So many came down that we noticed them at the early games, too, but when it came to our match against the Emerging Boks at the Boland Stadium in Wellington, we were stunned by the number of Lions fans there.
That was the beginning of the Red Wall. In all, between 20,000 and 25,000 Lions fans came down to South Africa that summer. Back home, everybody watched it on the television and wanted to be there, and when the travelling fans returned, their stories put a Lions trip on the bucket list of every rugby fan in these islands.
And if that was not enough, the whole event was immortalised in the Living With Lions documentary, which still ranks as one of the best sports documentaries of all time.
The knock-on commercial effects from 1997 have sustained the institution.
After Adidas did its original projection for that tour, it produced 200,000 shirts. But such was the demand that it did three more runs and eventually sold over 750,000 units. It could have sold more, too, and by the end the only place you could buy a Lions shirt was in South Africa, because they sold out in the UK.
The money spent by travelling fans, and the extra sponsorship and broadcasting revenue generated has helped preserve the Lions.
For the players, the Lions jersey remains still the ultimate accolade, without which the Lions would have no relevance.
My point is that we should not begrudge the broadcasters wanting the tour to go ahead in South Africa, where they will inevitably get better viewing figures than for Australia or New Zealand. Without television, we would not have the Lions as we know them, and we may not have them at all.
On the 1993 tour to New Zealand, when it was already clear that professionalism was coming, the Lions had a similar cachet to the Barbarians and many of us assumed that both institutions would fall victim to the forces of commercialism.
For those of us who knew what previous Lions tours were like, we knew 1997 was a turning point. On my first tour in 1974, there were very few touring fans and there was not even television in South Africa, so fans back home listened to the game live on radio but only saw the tests – no other games were filmed – when canisters of film made it home in time for a midweek showing of Sportsnight.
Even as recently as 1989, when I coached the Lions to Australia, the provincial games were not shown live and many were not even filmed. The 1993 tour to New Zealand was the first where the whole tour was televised and shown back home.
So, while matches at empty stadiums in South Africa is no one’s idea of an ideal Lions tour, at least we get that sense of a proper tour as the test side gradually emerge, while the whole country gets to see the spectacle in prime time.
The 1997 tour changed the Lions forever and brought the concept to a whole new audience of non-rugby fans and those with a casual interest in the game.
Hopefully, the 2021 version can carry on where 1997 started. In our current circumstances with the pandemic, the Lions are still the team to put a smile on faces and create the feelgood factor.