The business end of the British & Irish Lions rugby tour of New Zealand begins today (Saturday June 24) with the first of the three tests against the All Blacks. The All Blacks are heavy favourites to win all three encounters – but the Lions are at least feeling optimistic.
After a shaky start to the ten-game tour that could be explained by jet lag and players getting used to one another, the Lions have won the most recent couple of games – and played some good rugby.
It’s normal for players in international sports teams to have to gel with compatriots who are rivals from other clubs. But the Lions have the unusual challenge of also having to set aside international team rivalries between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland when coming together every four years. Travelling across the globe to take on the best team in the world just days after coming together must surely be the toughest assignment in international rugby.
At a time when people’s sense of Britishness is waning and national identities within the union have been reasserting themselves, this is an even greater challenge. Yet when you take a closer look at the composition of the team, something equally interesting reveals itself. It’s the kind of thing that should make everybody pause for thought, whether you could care less about rugby or not.
Into the melting pot
Bringing together four rugby nations to compete as one has always been a big challenge. Carwyn James, coach of the 1971 Lions, prepared his squad for their tour of New Zealand with the following speech:
I don’t want you Irish to pretend to be English, or English to be Celts, or Scotsmen to be anything less than Scots. Yet Scots must make bosom buddies of Englishmen, Irish of Welshmen, everybody of everybody – yet at the same time the Irish must remain ideologists off the field and on it fighters like Kilkenny cats; the English must keep their stiff upper lips and just be superior, the Scots be dour as well as radical, and the Welsh to be as bloody-minded as their history demands.
In the amateur era, the Lions brought together players from quite different social backgrounds – steelworkers from Pontypool would be standing alongside chartered surveyors from Edinburgh. Lifelong friendships were formed during these long tours and, for working-class amateurs, it was a chance to become full-time players for a few months.
Although some of the characteristics that Carwyn James noted in his speech may still live on, the differences are equally striking. Those who pull on the red jersey are now a product of a much more globalised rugby world. The rules about who is eligible to play for a particular country have attracted much attention. If an individual was not born in the country, they currently require at least one grandparent or parent who was born there or three years of residency (soon to be five).
The squad includes, for example, the prop Mako Vunipola, who was born in New Zealand to Tongan parents and wears the red rose of England. He speaks with a detectable Welsh lilt having originally moved to the UK as a child to live in south Wales.
He is touring with Scotland winger Tommy Seymour, who was born in the US and schooled in Northern Ireland. Seymour played for Ulster before moving to Glasgow Warriors and is eligible to represent Scotland through his Glaswegian mother. Or there is centre Jared Payne, who represented New Zealand at Under-21 level but now plays for Ireland, having qualified on residency grounds.
The Lions head coach Warren Gatland comes from New Zealand – and has coached Wales for the past ten years. Gatland faced comments about the number of Welsh players selected in the original squad and attracted criticism for temporarily bringing in four others (and two Scots) on a temporary basis. He had previously taken stick for fielding ten Welshmen in the final test match against Australia four years ago (as a Welshman I should add that the Lions won handsomely).
All this considered, it is probably just as well the Lions don’t sing a national anthem. The national anthem is tricky in Britain since God Save the Queen is often used for England and also the union as a whole. Some Welsh football players refused to sing it while part of Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics.
The identity question
But above all, what the composition of the Lions squad reminds us is that identity is far more complicated than some people think. It is perfectly possible to stand under a number of different banners at the same time.
It is good to recognise this when Scotland can feel very divided over the independence debate; when the UK is leaving the European Union; when the peace process in Northern Ireland is creaking as the Tories negotiate a parliamentary deal with the DUP; and when former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson is calling for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration in the wake of the recent terrorism attacks in the UK.
For as long as I can remember, the future of the British & Irish Lions tour has been in doubt. In the modern era in particular, it can often seem like one commitment too many for over-stretched players. The Australian victory in 2013 undoubtedly gave the tour a new lease of life, but the bad start in New Zealand immediately saw fresh questions about whether it should continue. We are already seeing concerns around the 2021 tour.
As a lover of rugby, I certainly hope it continues. It is a huge part of the game’s folklore, and an important reminder of how different nationalities can come together. That makes it well worth the ticket – and a couple of decent performances against the All Blacks would be celebrated far and wide across Britain and Ireland.