The pain appeared to intensify as its victim wandered haphazardly around the room, swabbing tears from his face with the palm of his right hand. When a friend and colleague emerged to console him, he buried his face deep into the other’s shoulder and emitted a low moan of the deepest despair.
Big boys don’t cry, they say. Real men, like Sir Ian McGeechan, do so when something sacred scours the soul. The sight of him losing control, and shrinking into the embrace of the forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, is required viewing for anyone who doubts the validity and importance of the British and Irish Lions.
The veteran head coach had just completed his final team talk of the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa when he realised he had reached a crossroads, personally and professionally. He would never again have such a platform for the stark eloquence generated by his passion for what the red jersey represents.
He had told his players: “The biggest thing you earn in this jersey is a respect and a reputation and, to any person, that’s the biggest thing you can have, for what you do and what you stand for. Some of you might be there to pick up the next jersey in four years’ time. Some of us won’t be. Please, please give them something to play for and something to understand.”
With the First Test against Australia looming at the Suncorp Stadium in the Brisbane suburb of Milton on Saturday, the message has sudden relevance. McGeechan’s subsequent tears are rugby’s holy water. They cleanse and replenish, justify an ideal and purify its participants.
They serve as a reference point, a challenge to the conscience in an age of artifice and cynicism, where more profound values, such as comradeship, loyalty and mutual sacrifice, are distorted and repackaged as a brand, to be sold glibly and globally.
The Lions are flirting with such heresies; this tour began with a corporate jolly in Hong Kong, and is in danger of being cheapened by rampant commercialism. A pair of red Lions socks? That’ll be £21, sir. Gold Lions cufflinks? A mere 110 of Her Majesty’s drinking vouchers. There is an avalanche of tat for under a tenner.
Rugby has struggled to deal with its inevitable mutation in the professional era. Mercenaries populate committee rooms and dressing rooms. The undercurrent of expedience leads to aberrations such as the Bloodgate scandal. Player welfare is becoming a pivotal issue.
They are prime physiological specimens, programmed scientifically to perform consistently. The dwarf-throwing, aftershave-drinking, hotel-destroying mavericks have been consigned to history. The pressure to win is paramount, and sets the scene for this series.
A Lions tour is a throwback, because less remains more. The four-year cycle is perfectly balanced, because it is sufficiently short to sustain the mystique through the power of memory, and long enough to generate a sense of expectation.
Team-mates have only three Test matches to leave their imprint on the timeline. They are an individual vintage, a unique band of brothers who, once the spell has been broken by the final whistle in the Third Test on 6 July, will revert to ancient and instinctive rivalries.
Heavens to Betsy, let boys be boys
Here we go again. Another set of callow youths, packaged as stars when they should be regarded as students. Another England football team on the traditional hiding to nothing.
This time it is Peter Taylor’s Under-20s, who begin their World Cup campaign against Iraq in Turkey a week today. The culture of acclamation before achievement does them few favours.
The FA, in their desperation to minimise their increasing marginalisation, have used their TV channel to promote Taylor’s players as emerging celebrities.
Young men such as James Ward-Prowse of Southampton and Everton’s Ross Barkley have obvious promise, but everyone is getting ahead of themselves.
Players as young as six are being scouted relentlessly and told they are special. By the time puberty hits, they have boot deals and agents masquerading as “consultants” to get around the rules.
It suits too many people to forget they are boys. The best youth coaches, such as Kevin Betsy, who works at Fulham’s academy, know the truth of the situation.
He oversaw a life-skills class on Friday. It involved a simple act of domesticity: making the bed. According to Betsy, “80 per cent of the boys didn’t have a clue” what to do. They know how to sign an autograph, though.
A bit run down
Athletics has been shunted to the sidelines in this so-called summer. The European Team Championships, at Gateshead next weekend, will barely register. The last thing the sport needed was yesterday’s news that Veronica Campbell Brown, Jamaica’s most celebrated female runner, has tested positive for a banned substance. Uncomfortable questions are about to be asked.
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