The English invented a lot of games and made a great point of selling them to every one of the many nations they travelled to. Italy and Argentina liked football; India and the West Indies liked cricket. To say that New Zealand liked rugby is to understate the case. They adopted the game as a combination of state religion, constitution and foundation myth.
Something about the game’s mixture of mayhem, grace and all-for-one anonymity took hold of the Kiwi soul and has possessed it ever since. In that time New Zealanders have reinvented the game again and again, setting new standards of excellence every time.
They dominate the world game as the game dominates their nation. Their national team is spoken of humbly throughout the rest of the rugby world as the All Blacks. This doesn’t just describe the colour of the kit they wear: it’s more a term for the mystique they have created across the years.
The All Blacks are always ferociously organised, improbably well prepared and brilliantly designed to operate as a machine. So someone from the northern hemisphere came up with a great idea: let’s try to beat them in their own backyard – with a scratch team!
For that’s what the British & Irish Lions are. Thrown together with scant time to get to know each other or develop tactics, exhausted after a long season, they have arrived in the greatest and most hostile rugby nation of them all, hoping to win rugby matches.
This is the 12th time a Lions squad has attempted the conquest of New Zealand; the first was in 1904. The Lions have won the international series just once: in 1971, when they finished 2–1 up, with a draw thrown in. The last time they went, in 2005, they were humiliated in all three internationals.
A Lions tour seems to be designed to take the best northern-hemisphere players and beat them up; to force a series of traumatic sporting experiences on them and break their confidence for future international matches when they play for their countries again.
But it’s the sort of old-school notion that gets rugby types sobbing into their drinks: fellows who were at each other’s throats just a few short weeks back, playing for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, are now comrades-in-arms: what our great game is all about etc.
The Lions retain a sense of romance. And romance sells sport like nothing else; even the players get caught up in it. Even if it is New Zealand we might… I mean we just might…
Here’s a plain fact: 15-a-side rugby union doesn’t often tell the underdog story. On the whole, possession is reflected in points. Heroic last-ditch defence and goal-line stands have their glories, but in rugby, victory is almost always to the strong – and the well prepared. So as we cheer for the Lions we must reflect that trying to win an international match on this tour is like running up Everest in roller skates.
To play for the Lions in this contest is to be a battered hero. A Lions tour of New Zealand is not a sane concept – but sport and sanity have never gone well together. And perhaps – perhaps – the madness will win.