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Probyn column: It’s time to be realistic about Lions tours

Lions tour

Why is it that each time there is a Lions tour and the playing schedule is announced it is immediately decried as being unfair to the Lions?

Whether a lack of preparation time before the start of the tour, too few warm-up games or the length of the tour itself, there always seems to be some reason why the Lions are doomed to failure before they have even selected the squad.

I have heard of getting your excuses in early but this is ridiculous and, what’s more, totally unnecessary given that all tour squads, whether for country or Lions, are always disadvantaged by the mere fact they are playing in another country with any number of environmental differences miles from home.

Every time the Lions have toured since the game went professional there have been attempts to blame the Premiership for their refusal to allow the players more time with the Lions. This time it’s by not moving the 2021 Premiership’s showpiece final at Twickenham, scheduled to take place seven days before the first tour game.

The claim is, that to have any chance of winning, the Lions coach will need more time to get his team ready to face an international side that may have played together for some time. But that is not necessarily true.

The most important thing for the coach is knowing how he wants to play the game and selecting the players who play that style. That is the same for any squad. Pick the right players and it will take just a few games for them to gel into a team.

To be honest, as much as I love the fact that the Lions are still managing to survive in the modern professional game, I am a realist.

I know the only reason they are still going strong is because they produce a lot of money for the host country they tour, and, as a result, they can demand a fair sum for making it happen.

The four home unions are partners and share the profits generated by the Lions but that pales into insignificance when comparing the money generated for the host country.

As for the players. Well, since that first ever tour where two thirds of the players actually helped kick-start Rugby League on their return, the Lions have had a professional reputation and with the last tour to New Zealand paying the players around £70,000 each for a few weeks on tour, is it any wonder all are keen to go?

The Lions are a special team because of their place in history as the first major team to tour the southern hemisphere and, in fact, the first ever major touring rugby team.

Lions tour
Durban cauldron: The Lions huddle before the first Test match of the 2009 tour series against the Springboks at Kings Park Stadium, Durban. Stu Forster/Getty Images

This was simply because when the idea of a tour to Australia and New Zealand was conceived it would take months to complete, given the only transport was by ship (they left England in March and returned in November).

Enough players had to be found who could spare and afford the time (they were amateurs) to travel to the other side of the world for nine months. Interestingly of that 22-man squad, only four ever played international rugby.

On that first tour they played 35 matches, won 27, drew six, lost two and even had time to fit in 19 games of Aussie Rules football. Meanwhile, in 2021 they will play eight games in five weeks.

The first two weeks in 2021 are a bit full on with Saturday and Wednesday games against Super Rugby and selected teams but then there is a week’s break between those games and the first Test with another week’s break between each of the next two Tests.

The main problem you have when you tour South Africa is switching from playing at sea level to playing on the high veld.

If you have never experienced playing at altitude, the best way to describe it is you feel like you have just run your first marathon without training when you’ve just run the length of the pitch.

It takes time to adjust when you first move up to the high veld with usual estimates of between seven to ten days but that is dependant on how fit you are and your metabolism.

The Lions will probably take around 41 players and so will be able to adjust the squad, resting players if need be.

The actual match timetable and venues help the Lions as the first three games are to be played at sea level, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban.

Even though these games take place over a seven-day period, it will probably be a week after the squad arrive in South Africa and will benefit Warren Gatland in sorting his Test team.

The Lions then move to a point halfway up the high veld to Nelspruit to play a South Africa A side on Wednesday, before completing the climb to Pretoria to face the Bulls in the last of the warm-up games on the Saturday.

They then have a seven-day break before the first Test in Johannesburg, virtually ensuring that all players would have become accustomed to playing and training at altitude by the time that game is played.

After that game it’s a week before the next Test in Cape Town (sea level), but with the final back in Johannesburg it’s likely that Gatland will want to arrange a quick in-and-out down to the Cape, so as to give his team the maximum time at altitude.

All in all, the schedule will probably be more suited to the Lions than the South Africans, who I am sure would have loved to have kept the Lions moving up and down from sea level to the high veld. 

JEFF PROBYN

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