I’m not a big Rugby Union fan, as I’m sure you’ll have noticed, though I did catch a fair amount of the British and Irish Lions game against the Waratahs on Saturday, and a thoroughly pleasant spectacle it was, too. The Lions looked solid, but their fans seemed equally happy to see the challengers play pretty well, too (at one point I most definitely saw a chap in a red shirt in the crowd applauding an opponent’s try). Though the Lions are battered and bruised and recruiting Shane Williams for a match, spirits seem high both in the stands and the camp. Good stuff.

And yet, England played a test over the weekend – they beat Argentina, while Wales lost to Japan. The component countries of the Lions all played matches. Admittedly, though Argentina are a very good side, Japan, Canada and Scotland are part of a tournament in South Africa – so all the useful rugby sides are being used at the moment. I’m not sure what we learn from the fact that a severely weakened Wales team can’t beat Japan twice in a row, or that England’s second-string can beat the Pumas, but both those things happened and I guess we should be grateful¹.

What, then, is the purpose of British and Irish Lions? Why are they there?

The Lions tours generally take in the Antipodes (as this one) or South Africa, who are busy ripping Scotland limb from limb, as explained above. The Lions themselves have a decent (if not great) record in their games which are, apart from a non sequitous draw with Argentina recently, all played away from home.

The first answer I’ve got is offensively glib, but perhaps
(worryingly) accurate. None of England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland are good enough, nor have been good enough historically, to travel to the Southern Hemisphere and give any of their teams an even match. The Lions, as some super-hybrid-team, have more of a chance but even then, the nature of international rugby, and the physicality of some of the Southern Hemisphere teams means that they’re broken before they get there; witness Shane Williams’ call-up to the squad.

There’s a second part to this, perhaps best illustrated in numbers. England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are four teams. Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are three. What would the spare team do? In fact, even if you go so far as to include Argentina, the northern hemisphere teams would number more, with France and Italy coming to the party.

To amalgamate four of them means they can play more tests against each team, rather than just one against each. In that case, it allows a series to develop, which adds to the narrative of the tour – England rocking up and getting battered by Australia, narrowly losing to New Zealand and then flying to South Africa and squeaking a win there is just three things that happen – the narrative of a series is important, and doesn’t maintain well through individual matches.

The reason I wondered about this is that the Lions reminded me of the fuss the various football associations had when they formed a Great Britain side for the Olympics and their fear that, particularly, seeing that it could happen once, UEFA would try to amalgamate England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales for tournament play. I thought it refreshing that the various RFUs were unconcerned by that idea.

Then I thought a little deeper. If the four British nations remained separate, the Rugby World Cup would feature only seven (or eight, to be generous) traditional rugby playing nations. It would, instead of having the scope and scale it does now, be a relatively small affair. Even if those four British sides are unlikely to challenge for the crown (and how many European Rugby World Cup Winners have there been? One (England) while the three tri-nation sides have won it twice each), their presence gives at least a challenge. It would be wrong of me not to mention that all but one (1995) World Cup Final has featured a European team (thrice England, thrice France), but only one has triumphed.

That’s the point, really. The British and Irish Lions could compete at a World Cup. The players would have a far better chance of winning a tournament that would be pretty well out of reach otherwise. If I was a player, I’d want that chance. Of course, I look at this through non-rugby eyes, but if the only reason the Lions aren’t the World Cup is that the World Cup needs more ‘decent’ quality sides to give the tournament more credibility, then the four nations that comprise aren’t maximising their opportunity – sacrificing themselves on the altar of world domination.

The flip side of that is that the Lions becoming an amalgamated force would render the Six Nations pointless; and which brings in more money to the RFUs? Three six nations games, a visit from a Southern Hemisphere nation and dashed optimism of a World Cup Campaign or, perhaps ½ a test against a SH team, another against Italy or France or Argentina, and then a decent World Cup chance? Seeing the funding dip like that would make the British side weaker over time, too, and be counter-productive in the medium term.

It seems to me that rugby union is hamstrung by its small base of high quality rugby playing nations. To lose three of them (even if it improved the quality of another) would render the sport almost niche – the World Cup would be the same size as the World Baseball Classic, I would reckon, and probably just as well followed outside those nations that were in it. If the ‘other’ nations that play rugby improve, which is doable, and is happening – look at the rise of Italy and Argentina; there’s no reason Japan, maybe, or Canada, Romania or Russia couldn’t be at that level in ten or fifteen years time, and the more teams that are, the more the sport will improve.

At the moment, the three SH teams are dominant, and will be for the foreseeable future; Europe’s best way of giving them a bloody nose lies in the shape of the Lions. However, until the Lions are playing in the World Cup, meanwhile, it remains very difficult to see a non-SH winner, but then, the British sides have the Six Nations they can win, and, as so often with sport, goals are set accordingly.

Incidentally, I deliberately and entirely side-stepped that issue of national identity here; I was working purely on the basis that the British and Irish Lions do exist; I am fully aware of the fact that dispensing with Wales’ national team in their national sport (for example) wouldn’t be simply a decision to be made in political terms, or taken lightly.

¹As you can probably tell, I give around a quarter of a toss.