James Lawton: Lions tours have a place beyond anything else

Southern hemisphere nations drool over prospect of facing Lions in a way that leaves British and Irish sentiment in shade

If it should happen that one of the beefier Lions melts down in the scorching heat of Hong Kong today, one of the greatest of his predecessors will know where the blame lies for the smudge of sweat and gristle – and so many of the other threats to the most thrilling prosecution of the game he graced so beautifully.

But then if Barry John, who along with the herculean Ulster farmer Willie John McBride arguably did most to lift the 125-year-old tradition of the team into the realm of sporting legend,  is withering when he speaks of the ‘call of  the dollar’, he is also sure that the climatic problem in the South China sea is a mere  local difficulty.

“You see,” says John, “The Lions are unstoppable. They have a place in the game which goes beyond anything else, all the cups, all the tours of the national teams, even the World Cup, and the need to fill what seems like every minute of every day with a game of professional rugby. It’s the age we live in and the dollar calls more persuasively than anything else.

“That’s why Wales played Australia six times in a year, why England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland are trailing weary players around the world – and why the Lions are playing in Hong Kong today when they should be bedding down in Australia. The good news is that the idea of the Lions, which some said was going to be phased out in the professional age, has proved itself untouchable. In rugby, its appeal is simply unique. Every four years it comes back fresh and full of running.”

England’s World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward had already strongly attacked the point of the Hong Kong collision with the Barbarians amid widespread suspicions that  it is more than anything the flag-waving will  of the major sponsor HSBC bank. However, if  the chances are that we will have a distinctly moist canapé on the table today, it is unlikely  to dilute anticipation for the main course  much longer than it takes to make the short drive to the airport.

If the Lions are hungry for victory, their first since Martin Johnson so epically repelled a legion of critics of his appointment as captain in South Africa in 1997, and only their second in 24 years, the appetite in Australia is surely no  less intense.

John says: “When people try to explain the meaning of the Lions, they generally talk to the players, past and present, and they talk about what it represents for them – the greatest honour, the greatest achievement et cetera et cetera. But what we sometimes forget is what it means in the southern hemisphere. If we get excited, down there rugby people drool over the prospect. Beating the Lions tells them where they are as a force in the game. It says that all is well with their game, it isn’t coming under threat.

“This is why the Australian coach Robbie Deans is so unlikely to survive defeat. He has to show that he is on the right track.”

Is Lions coach Warren Gatland? John, whose sublime performances in New Zealand in 1971 delivered the one and only Lions triumph in the land of the long white cloud and the big dark intimidation, likes the squad well enough, and not least the power and the precocious authority of those of his compatriots who so recently  took England apart, piece by piece in the Millennium Stadium.

The trouble is that power and single-mindedness might not be quite enough. The Lions certainly have a healthy supply of it throughout the squad, and not least in the Welsh centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, but then if anyone is entitled to yearn for a little more, not just as a luxury but a killing element, it is surely the great Barry John.

“The Lions are going to be very competitive but you do have to wonder from where the spark will come. If it doesn’t arrive, then we might just not have enough.”

In another rugby age, the Welshman supplied it with a wondrous combination of ghostly running and tactical kicking so acute it foreshortened several All Black careers, quite apart from earning him life-long bragging rights from one end of the most fanatical rugby nation on earth to the other. Then, weighed down by celebrity and the widespread conclusion that he might just have been the finest fly-half the game had ever seen, he walked away.

His concern now is for someone who has withstood a degree of that pressure for seven years longer, that Lion most capable of producing such extraordinary quality, the one or two flashes of high class penetration per match that might just settle the issue in Australia, may just be a little too old, a little too battered.

He worries about Brian O’Driscoll, the modern rugby player he admires most deeply.

But then who wouldn’t. You think of O’Driscoll and the recurring image is of the hardest, most debilitating contact. You remember sitting in the stand in Lansdowne Road beside his father Frank, a doctor,  eight years ago and seeing him shudder  and wince at the level of punishment his son invited upon himself. “I tell him, I tell him,” said Frank O’Driscoll, “but he just tells me I should mind my own business and he would do the same.”

That was shortly before O’Driscoll was appointed captain of the 2005 Lions – and ran straight into the joint embrace of All Black captain Tana Umaga and hooker Kevin Mealamu. O’Driscoll’s fate, a dislocated shoulder when he threw out an arm to protect his head as he was tossed to the ground, was later the subject of a press conference orchestrated by the media adviser coach Woodward had borrowed from Whitehall, Alastair Campbell no less. The rage of the  Lions was fierce indeed but O’Driscoll largely kept his own counsel. He resolved to fight on other days.

Now he becomes only the third Lion to ever embark on his fourth tour. It is an astonishing feat of durability pulled out from under the most daunting odds. John is hoping, as much as  he has done in any cause of recent years, in  his ability, that the great Irishman has one  last statement to make, one last piece of remarkable resilience.

“The last time I saw him,” says John, “he was in the sin-bin in Rome, wet and battered and facing a suspension for stamping on an Italian. I wondered then if maybe he had come too far but then we are talking about one of the most remarkable people we have ever seen in the game and you have to speculate that he might just have something important left to do.

“He is finishing on a great stage and everything about him suggests that if anyone can do it, he can.”

It is a formidable endorsement at the most challenging time in the rugby cycle – and certainly the professional life – of a man of relentless ambition and competitive character.

We can also be very sure that he will have the blessing of that other giant of the Lions story, the earth-moving McBride.

It was Willie John who most dramatically accepted arguably the most draining challenge of the rugby existence soon after John’s life-changing adventure in New Zealand. McBride authored the call of 99 – one digit short of the emergency dial – when he believed South Africa were intent on outright physical intimidation in the tour of 1974. It was the signal for every Lion to respond to an incident of such force, by attacking the nearest Springbok in those days of less than perfect video vigilance.

The Lions won that one under the inspiration of an Irishman of astonishing will. It would, at the very least, be historically pleasing if it should just happen again.

Nor would it harm the momentum of rugby’s most vibrant draw.

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