Extra Time with Ronan Quirke
I grew up loving rugby union. My late father, who always seemed to work every Saturday, took four Saturday after- noons off every year. To watch the Five Nations games that Ireland played. Sport was rarely on television back then, there were no celebrity panellists, little analysis, just Fred Cogley and dodgy action replays. But on those cold wet Saturday afternoons in the late 1970’s my father taught me the laws of the game.
By the age of 8, I was playing mini rugby in Clonmel RFC, played rugby (badly) in school, played even poorer in col- lege, tried rugby 7’s (no thanks!) before getting pulverised whilst playing for Hertford RFC and announced my retire- ment at the grand old age of 22.
Then came the novelty of the Rugby World Cup every four years, the game went professional, it was on our televisions more and more before Munster Rugby trans- formed and grew the rugby audience beyond all recogni- tion.
But one thing I never really bought into was the British and Irish Lions. And this year’s tour to South Africa sits particularly uneasy with me. I believe they should never have gone. We watch sport for many reasons but one is its utter unpredictability. For most of my life, I watched Ireland play New Zealand, never expecting us to win, but hoping that we might. And I have lived long enough to see Ireland beat them twice. I will tune into the All Ireland football final this year, not expecting Dublin to lose, but still hoping that they might. And it is that unpredictability in sport that draws us in, that fuels a gambling industry, sparks conversations and adds colour to any game.
But what was absolutely predictable about this years Li- ons tour to South Africa was the fact that Covid 19 would inevitably disrupt the tour and at worst, put people at risk. Already the tour is in chaos and there is a strong likelihood that the three test matches will take place at sea level in Cape Town. What worth a test series win in South Africa if you don’t compete with them at altitude on the high- veld? A win in Johannesburg is an altogether different achievement to a win at sea level and if the Lions team is to hold themselves comparable to those that went before then three test matches in Cape Town inevitably puts an asterisk beside any achievements.
South Africa reports nearly twenty thousand new Covid cases per day, and over 250 deaths every day. They have had their own variant emerge in South Africa (the Beta variant), which is largely unseen in Europe and they are now battling (like ourselves) the highly transmissible Delta variant.
And right up to the 11 th hour the South African RFU ar- gued in favour of allowing fans into the stadiums to watch the games.
Now a Lions tour is a different animal to an international tournament such as a rugby world cup. Each occur only once every four years but a Lions Tour is hardly a competi- tive competition open to whomever can qualify. It is a end of season jamboree for well-paid professional players. It harks back to a pre professional rugby world when rugby nations in the southern hemisphere might only get limited chances to play northern hemisphere teams. Perhaps only once in a career. And if you were an Irish international, a Lions tour might offer you an opportunity to play in Eden Park, or the MCC or Ellis Park. But such opportunities are no longer rare if you play at the pinnacle of this sport.
So what is the point of the Lions? They don’t include the French or the Italians so it is nothing like a ‘best of’ the Northern Hemisphere. It smacks of some post-colonial tour of the old Commonwealth. Why do they never tour Argentina? Is it because the Argentinians don’t speak English and are a little too new to the game? And what will this tour do to advance the game of rugby union? Previous Lions tours would have gone into poor black townships and spread the game to a population that might view it differently to their more affluent fellow countrymen. Not so on this tour, the team will remain in a Covid free bubble, or at least they tried to. It will not spread the game in South Africa, it is a commercial ven- ture first and foremost, their principles sold to the highest TV bidder and to tour in a time of Covid in order to make money is tone deaf.
Of course tone deaf rugby tours are nothing new. In May 1981 an Irish rugby team toured South Africa at a time when none of the rest of the world would play against them. Economic and sporting sanctions against an apart- heid era South Africa were at their height, but that didn’t stop some of our (amateur) Internationals from heading south. RTE refused to report on the games and it led to an avalanche of criticism from the Irish rugby family and from the nation as a whole. Whatever their reasons for going, the 1981 Tour was tone deaf: not too dissimilar to the current tour in my opinion.
Lastly, I started by saying that I never really understood the Lions. I have no desire to go on tour with them, I don’t want their jersey and I am not going to disrupt my day to turn on the test matches. And my indifference to them probably mirrors my indifference to a relic of the GAA past, namely the Railway Cup. Ask any GAA player from the 1960’s about their medal haul and they will proudly cite Railway Cup victories alongside Munster titles. Not so now, and the reasons are obvious. The GAA has successful- ly stoked intercounty rivalry in order to boost the popular- ity of its sports. The modern hurling fan has little interest in a Railway Cup team made up of five Munster hurling counties when they spend much of their summer cursing the other four.
Likewise, for me, the Lions. I find it hard to cheer on a team made up of a sizable proportion of Englishmen. The Welsh players make no secret of the fact that they dislike the Irish rugby team. The Lions coach, Warren Gatland never comes across as Irish rugby’s greatest friend. Gat- land’s treatment of former Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll in 2013 was, perhaps, an occasion when the mask slipped. Martin Johnson and the Lansdowne Road red carpet inci- dent? I could go on with a list of gripes but they only serve to show my lack of enthusiasm for a team made up from three other countries that I enjoy seeing Ireland beat.
But the real issue with the 2021 tour of South Africa is the Covid epidemic in the country and the needlessness of the tour. The fact that the institution of the Lions answers to sponsors and not public health advice. My interest starts and ends in hoping that the Munster lads stay injury free. Join Ronan on the Extra Time Sports Program on TippFM Monday nights at 7pm.