Unique. That is the word that is always but always used to describe the Lions. Or as I heard the genius that was Ray Gravell once put it: "The Lions are uniquely unique in their own uniqueability."
Except are they? Why? Just because players who are usually found beating seven bells out of each other suddenly join up to beat seven bells squared out of some other poor bugger? Even footballers do that. One Saturday a Premiership player attempts to rid his opponent of a troublesome body part, such as a knee joint, the very next he tries to empty the same torso of saliva after seeing him score for England, sorry France. That's professional team sport for you. It's about as unique as a haemorrhoid on a bobsleigher's bum in an ice age.
Of course, there's a lot more to the British and Irish Lions – to give them their catchy, politically correct title – than all that. At least, that's what the Lions fanatics will tell you, an overly enthusiastic breed who are prone to go flying fist first into the Cornettos whenever they queue at an ice-cream van and hear someone order a 99. It is worth analysing the reasons why they believe this scratch side to be unique, if only to crush them like Shane Williams in a game of Twister with the Williams sisters.
"The Lions never play at home." (Er, what about the Baa-baas? And, in fact, haven't the Lions played at home a few times, including under Sir Clive Woodward in 2005 when drawing at the Millennium Stadium with Argentina?) "The Lions only come together every four years." (Ever heard of the Olympics?) "The Lions are made up of four nations with huge cultural differences who manage to put all this acrimony aside to amalgamate into one united force." (What exactly are we saying here? That the Welsh and the English are the rugby version of Israel marrying up with Palestine? These two warring nations are separated by a dyke, for Offa's sake, not by barbed blockades.)
In truth, rugby's professional age has robbed much, if not all, that made the Lions special. It used to be that tours would last months, not weeks, and would arrive after years of build-up during which the Five Nations would provide only temporary distraction. Now with World Cups, with Heineken Cups, with summer tours, autumn tours, winter tours, spring tours, tours wedged into toilet breaks, the Lions arrive almost like an afterthought. Where once it provided a legend such as Barry John the chance to test to his God-given skills against players he might get to face three times in his career, now Brian O'Driscoll is squaring up to Jean de Villiers every other week. And if they aren't the opponents they are the team-mates, as club rugby in this hemisphere is flooded by the southern giants gobbling up their fast bucks. The Lions aren't striding into the unknown so much as tiptoeing into the all too bloody familiar.
Yet Lions tours remain unique to the fans, are still special, are still the blessed exception. For this is the one time when we can cheer on players who, deep down, we've always wanted to cheer on, but haven't been able to do because of our overriding patriotic prejudices. Being from Wales I can verify the pleasure in finally being able to root for the England titans. Dean Richards, for one, and I can still remember the joy of hearing my mother screaming at the scream "go, Deano, go" rather than her traditional "drop it, you fat-arsed, hippo-hipped bastard".
My own moment of red-shirted enlightenment came during the tour to Australia when I discovered myself in a Richmond pub singing "Oh, Jonny, Jonny, (pause for breath, gulp of Guinness, gurn) Jonny, Jonny, Jonny, Jonny Wilkinson". I stopped short of joining the chorus of "Swing Low". But I'm telling you, one Rohypnol more...
Then there is the flip side of this precious sovereign that just keeps on giving – what happens when it all goes pear-shaped, or in Welsh parlance "all goes rose-shaped". Even when the Lions fall, the fans win as they simply switch back to Six Nations mode and blame the auld enemy. It's a win-whinge situation.
Everybody knows (well, everybody where I come from, anyway) that the Lions won in 1997 because of Neil Jenkins' unerring boot, lost in 2001 because of Wilkinson's erring boot and lost in 2005 because of what was on the bottom of Woodward's boot (Alastair Campbell). And believe it, if the Lions lose this tour it will again be England's fault. Or maybe Ireland's. And in the event of 14 Welshman starting alongside Mike Blair, then Scotland's, definitely Scotland's. It will not, I repeat, will not be Wales' fault. Never has been, never will be. In that sense Grav was right. We truly are uniquely unique in our own uniqueability.Reuse content