2012 provided a magnificent summer of sport for the UK, where national pride moved past the parochialism of the home nations to truly embrace Team GB. Over the coming months we will be treated to the UK taking on Australia not only in the guise of the England cricket team, in back to back Ashes series, but also the British and Irish Lions.
The England cricket team can be a divisive topic particularly around the fact that Welsh, Scottish and Irish players all have to play under the English flag if they want to play at the highest level – no one could ever accuse Robert Croft of not being a proud Welshman but I assume he had no qualms of playing for England and being a proud and integrated member of the team.
This leads me to the British and Irish Lions, often shortened without much fuss to the British Lions or more politically the Lions. A throwback to an amateur era, no doubt, but the Lions is a unique beast within professional sport. Unlike the Barbarians, or the All Star Games evident in US Sports, the Lions are a pinnacle of Rugby set aside from the rewards of the professional game. Ask anyone who has ever played for the Lions what it means to be invited to tour; ask anyone who has played against the Lions what it means to beat the Lions – the Lions have made legends of men, from Willie John McBride to Martin Johnson. Lions tours are so anticipated that regardless of other commitments the southern hemisphere protagonists have signed up many years in advance for future tours because of the commercial success.
But from a player point of view how has this amateur ideal remained apart from the professional cynicism that might see the end of the Lions – particularly when domestic seasons, international tours and the competitiveness of the Lions all come into the debate? Whether a Lion or the opposition these are the games that people want to play in and the games that the fans want to watch. But how can the Lions succeed when national hostility, particularly from the Celtic nations to England, seemingly divide the dressing room? The greatest aspect of being a Lion is exactly that – the diversity of the squad, the chance to play with the greatest players of your era, to garner the passion of the Irish, with the rugby philosophy of the Welsh; the never say die attitude of the Scottish with the pragmatic power of the English. The Lions gel under a banner which is simply signified by a red jersey and the pride of being a Lion. To respect the history and to not fail the guy next to you. It is as much about inclusion as it is about brotherhood.
Lions play for one another, the ultimate team. There is the famous “99” call, a “one in, all in” simultaneous retaliation by the Lions to Springbok aggression in 1974. When that unity has broken the Lions have failed. I felt as a tourist in 2001 that the management focused so heavily on training that they forgot that the unity was built off the pitch. It is a crucial lesson for any organisation or company: teams are built by people getting to know and trust one another and being inclusive of everyone regardless of where they come from, because it is that diversity that will give your team the cutting edge. The British and Irish Lions strength is that they glory in the strengths that the differing nations provide. By embracing what we can all bring to the tour we overcome lack of training time, journey time, acclimatisation, being away from family and playing away to the southern hemisphere nation. That is why to a fan or a player the sum of the Lions is so much greater than the parts.