Well, if the British and Irish Lions can survive that tour, you have to think they can survive anything.
From the missives coming from management after the narrow defeat in the third test – and therefore the series – it seems the general enthusiasm for the touring concept is undimmed.
This despite the Covid restrictions, no fans at any games, and the almost incessant irritant of on-and-off-field bickering – between the coaches, players, even the fans of the four home nations.
And, let’s not forget, easily the worst three international matches of 2021 so far.
Australia can barely wait for 2025
We all ❤️ rugby
But sometimes it's gutting 😫
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) August 10, 2021
But Australia 2025 is already moving the needle. Part of this is that Rugby Australia are so absolutely desperate for the money-spinning presence of the Lions that they’ll even hive off matches against Fiji and Tonga to secure it. It’s still a great idea, by the way.
And the Aussies’ obvious relish for a Lions visit is indicative of their appeal. No other element in rugby union appeals nearly as much to those who are uncommitted or occasional observers of the sport.
Rugby Australia, struggling to get noticed as union falls miles behind League, AFL and soccer in popularity, know the Lions gives them precious relevance with their home audience.
Jason Leonard, the chair of the Lions board, painted a picture of future prosperity despite the difficulties of this tour. The Lions remain a surviving anachronism of the amateur game. But the huge profits – for the hosts and for the four home nations – mean we must crack on.
Gatland again? Surely not
Leonard also indicated that they want Warren Gatland to be head coach again, and that Gat is amenable to the idea.
This to me is less of a good idea. Part of the issue is that the Lions now require their head coach has be free for a long period. Gatland got a sabbatical from Wales to coach in 2017 and was a free agent having left the Welsh this time around.
He’s going to coach the Chiefs in Super Rugby, but who knows how long that arrangement lasts. It’s unlikely he’ll get a head coach position at another one of the top nations now.
So by the time Australia 2025 rolls around Gat will be six years out of international rugby. But for the two months just past, obviously.
That’s too long for my money. Quite how much the 2021 Lions were Warren’s baby and how much a result of a collective plan between him and his assistants we’ll probably never know.
But we say the way the Six Nations was played this year. We know all too well the way South Africa play generally. Who or what was the other common denominator in the turgid series just played?
There will be other available candidates
Maybe the game has moved on already from Gatland’s style. You can’t think that it’ll be any better in 2025.
After the World Cup in 2023, at least one of the current international head coaches will step down.
That could be Gregor Townsend or Andy Farrell, both of whom have the pedigree. Or Wayne Pivac, who like Gatland has found himself in Wales – while encouraging a much more attractive form of rugby.
I think there are plenty of alternatives to Gatland. They should be closely examined instead of simply rubber-stamping him as head coach yet again.
Scotland should benefit from the tour again
The other relevant question of the tour – parochially at least – is how best do Scotland benefit from it?
Famously the last two Scottish Grand Slams, in 1984 and 1990, came in the wake of Lions tours where a Scots coach played a prominent role. I’d be surprised if Gregor hasn’t been taking copious notes for future reference this last two months.
During our exceedingly limited presence in Lions tours recently, I was always struck by the almost passive reaction of Scottish players after Lions Tours. You’d have thought they’d be gagging to prove everyone wrong, but you certainly never got that impression.
Surely Zander Fagerson could never be passive in his reaction to being benched for Kyle Sinckler. You imagine that Hamish Watson will be the same.
Finn (how close was he to truly Lions legend status?), Ali Price, Chris Harris and Duhan van der Merwe will be flush with confidence for the new season once they are properly rested.
Hogg’s particularly arduous season
The reputations of most of the Scottish tourists have been enhanced. The exception, perhaps, was national captain Stuart Hogg.
Hogg’s performance in the second test was not up to his high standard. But he underwent a level of scrutiny afterwards that was wildly unbalanced.
I had no issue with the decision to play Liam Williams at 15 in the final test, but neither do I think that decision was confirmed as the right one.
Everyone on the tour underwent a more exacting season than ever before. But as a national captain playing full-time for a leading English Premiership club, the physical and mental demands on Hogg were greater than anyone else’s.
Of the home nation captains, Alun Wyn Jones was bubble-wrapped thoughout the season. Owen Farrell played mostly championship rugby. Jonny Sexton didn’t tour. Hoggy was full-on, every week, all the time.
I think that explains the shading of his form, so exceptional in February. Hopefully he’ll be given the recovery time he needs to be at his very best in November and onwards.