Heard the one about the Scotsmen, the Irishmen and the Welshmen? It was ruined by too many Englishmen. Warren Gatland's punchline on how many of Stuart Lancaster's thriving young side he might employ this summer may have got lost in translation – or covered by a backtrack quick enough to haul in any Wallaby line break – but it is indicative of the background music that accompanies the grand old championship every four years.
Which of the four home nations will have the Lions' share of the 30-odd red jerseys handed out later this year is a debate that ebbs and flows around each round of this year's Six Nations. An English hammering of the supposedly hapless French on Saturday will increase the clamour for a near whitewash of Gatland's squad, but then, with Wales suggesting they might be clambering back on their feet and Scotland quietly confident with a couple of winnable home games to come, it may require more of a pick and mix. And don't write off the injury-riddled Irish. They have Bod on their side.
The Six Nations is one of this country's sporting cornerstones. The sheer numbers who turn up in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff as well as Dublin, Paris and Rome are on a scale to make even rugby's sporting elder brother envious. Football does not attract such audiences to the national sides of Scotland, Wales or Ireland, while at Twickenham England compete on an equal footfall with their Wembley neighbours. It is in rare old health off the pitch and on it – the last four years have seen four different winners.
The looming Lions tour, which takes in three Tests in Australia, is supposed to add an extra frisson to the season. There is even more to play for than your country, there is that famous jersey to be earned, the pinnacle for any player. Except it isn't. The pinnacle is the World Cup, after that the Grand Slam. There should be no more incentive required for any player in any sport than to pull on your country's colours. Thousands upon thousands want to, very few enjoy the privilege. And the Lions represent nobody's country.
There is something of a red myth surrounding the Lions. When they do get together they are rarely any good and in this modern sporting world of marginal gains scratch sides are only going to find it ever more difficult to beat national ones. The Lions have won two of their last nine series, lost their last three and their last in Australia, in 2001. Perhaps they should follow golf and look to Europe to bolster numbers; the British and Irish and Italian and French Lions. Or Les (Ros)Biifs.
The Lions remain an oddity and most likely would have disappeared into the history books where it not for one factor. Like the overhyped Ryder Cup, it is a lucrative franchise for those who run it, and those who host it. It is not because Australia can beat them more easily than, say, England that this summer's hosts, as well as New Zealand and South Africa, relish the arrival of the Lions. It's because a healthy boost to the host union's coffers follows – some 30,000 from Britain and Ireland are expected to head to Australia in support of the Lions. Meanwhile, back in the northern hemisphere, the home unions' chief executives will be equally happy in their counting houses. The Lions began more than a century ago as a commercial idea and today it is a lucrative one. This year's £14m tour Down Under is expected to result in a £4m profit divided equally among England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – for the latter two, in particular, that is a welcome quadrennial bonus.
If it didn't pay its way the carefully selected tour party would not leave these shores but when it does depart this summer it will not be accompanied by any great interest from this quarter. Team sport is about caring about the colour of a shirt, identifying with the men or women wearing it. Support your club and support your country because in sport there is nothing above that.
Britain is not a sporting nation. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are sporting nations. It was impossible to care about the contrived British Olympic football team. Last summer's surge of sporting Britishness was a one off, fuelled by our delight in hosting the Games and the flattering mirror that the genius Danny Boyle held up for us to look into. It will not be back in Rio.
Like the British football team – a labelling that looks odd and sounds odd – the Lions are a sporting contrivance, albeit one with a weighty history. Their identity is not one with which I can identify. I care who wins the Six Nations and that emotional investment is definitive. I cannot care whether Gatland's selection beat Australia no matter how the numbers add up.Reuse content