Hands off the Lions

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July 14, 2017

That was a breathtaking Lions tour of New Zealand that for me captured every emotion in sport. So I am disappointed that people are talking about downscaling Lions Tours in the future to make them shorter and less frequent.
I understand the clubs’ point of view – they pay the players’ wages and don’t want to see them over-used – but there still has to be room for amazing sporting confrontations like this.
 
Yes, it may be a rather old-fashioned concept to bring players together from so many countries, and, yes, you now have regular autumn internationals where southern and northern hemisphere teams can test themselves against each other, but I think it’s important that we embrace it. We should be building our global season around making sure the Lions is very much part of it.
 
Certainly every taxi driver I’ve been driven by in London since I got back has been raving about what they saw.
 
We talk about sport changing the world, and I cannot imagine a better example of what sport is all about, bringing 4,500 Lions fans together in the Fan Zone celebrating sport before they go off to the match. I’ve got one photo of a mum and dad, all dressed in Lions red, with their little son, all doing the tour.
 
Down in Rotorua for the Maori game, there was a haka led by the All Black great, Buck Shelford  and you had 7,500 people, many Of them Brits getting into it. Anyone who witnessed those five weeks could really understand the power of sport.
 
When the Tests started, I suppose everyone thought after the First Test and the All Blacks win ‘Oh, here we go, same old, same old, Lions; competitive, but just not good enough. 3-0? 
            
And then you go to Wellington, with Lions coach Warren Gatland saying, as he had the whole way through, ‘we’re getting better’. I have always said, if you are playing against the best, you’ll get better. And the Lions did. 
 
The win in Wellington, then the heart-stopping 15-15 draw in Auckland was an unbelievable climax. If there had been a Fourth Test it would have been interesting to see what would have happened. Or maybe we should have just had another 10 minutes each way after the Third Test! 

 
Throughout the tour, I think it was the best atmosphere that I’ve ever experienced in any rugby stadium. It was all Lions fans at first, then it was like the All Blacks fans got into the game.
 
I liked what Gatland did in terms of having to change the way they played the game. In the Second Test, the Lions got away with slowing the All Blacks ball down at the break down. Itoje gave away so many penalties it stopped the All Blacks momentum. And in the Third Test, they just weathered the storm in the first half and probably played the better rugby in the second half.
 
There has been a lot of talk about whether the All Blacks should have had a penalty for the offside issue in the last few minutes, which could have given them victory, but that’s sport. The referee had his view and we have to accept that. I was impressed, as always, with how the players accepted that. Some other sports could learn a lesson from rugby. And it’s a great lesson for watching kids.
 
At the end of it all, there’s a photo of Sam Warburton and Keiran Read each holding the cup, which I think is nice. The quality of the rugby was outstanding, but the players also understood their other responsibilities. The Lions players visited schools and hospitals, they mixed with the fans and they must have signed a million autographs. They grasped the understanding of Sport for Good, and as Chairman of Laureus, I was delighted to see it.
 
I think New Zealand fell in love with them. I know we're good hosts, but everyone just opened their arms.  There was even a website where you could invite a British fan to come and stay – ‘we’ve got a bed and we’ll come and pick you up’. I don’t think that would happen in any other sport. That’s the power of sport. Trust and respect.
 
The Lions is a brand that has a special place. I don’t think they should fiddle with it. Only six weeks ago they hadn’t played a game together and they ran the best team in the world close! That’s how good it was.
 
I think there’s a bigger message for rugby here: the gap between southern and northern hemispheres is becoming very close. I think we've just seen the best Six Nations ever, and it just shows the benefit of having good coaches. And now a lot of those players have beaten the All Blacks and drawn with them in their heartland. They will be much better players for it – and they will want to do it again.