The first ever British and Irish Lions Tour in 1888 was not what you'd call straightforward. The journey to the tour of Australia and New Zealand took 46 days on a boat. On the tour, the skipper Robert Seddon tragically drowned in a sculling accident in New South Wales. Things have changed a fair bit in the last 130 years, but the Lions remain one of sports great enigmas. Bringing together a side made up of the best players across Great Britain and Ireland and weaving them together in mere weeks with the hope of beating the world's best teams. It is a crazy, impossible concept that shouldn't work, but somehow it does, brilliantly. The 2017 vintage have been inconsistent so far, which is not unusual. It is however the selection decisions of coach Warren Gatland that have been most under the spotlight. He has been roundly criticised for his decision to call up four Welsh players touring in New Zealand. You may think this is a bit of a storm in a tea cup, a media storyline that will last no more than a few days. But Gatland's actions undermine the heart of what the Lions are about, and could even spell danger for the very existence of this storied team.
In an age where sport has become ultra professionalised, the concept of four national teams coming together to combine into a makeshift touring part is truly unique. There are so many perfectly logical reasons for it not to exist; injury risk and insurance, player salaries, players losing their offseason and conflicts with national bodies and club teams to name but a few. But thank god that it does, because there are few things more entertaining in sport than a Lions Tour, bringing brands flocking to partner with this sporting institution. But with all these reasons for the team not to exist, there are a few powerful threads keeping this team together, and it is these that Gatland's selection policy is threatening to undermine.
The number one factor that keeps the Lions so compelling is tradition. The Lions jersey has a genuine history. The legendary players selected for the team and the fact that only a limited group have ever put on the jersey makes it a pinnacle of any player's career. A recent twitter exchange between the Lions official handle and ex-Lion Simon Shaw illustrates just how proud players are to make the short list of former Lions:
You're Lion #667 Simon 🦁☺️— British&Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) June 15, 2017
But when Gatland selects players for the touring party because of location, not quality, he handed a shirt to players who not even he would argue are there on merit. It undermines the experience of earning a shirt. Players make real sacrifices to tour with the Lions, giving up an off-season and risking injury through fatigue and playing in an uncomfortable setting. If players start to think that earning the shirt isn't quite as valuable as it was, they might decide they don't want to sacrifice so much after all.
The other big draw for the Lions is being able to see such an extra-ordinary collection of talent come together in one 'super-team'. This relies on the four unions, who account for these players' salaries for most of the year, releasing them from their own tours to go with the Lions. I'm not sure this can be considered a given. If national coaches start to feel their players aren't given a fair shake, they might start suggesting to their players that touring with their country to stay part of the set up might be a better idea. Or maybe in an extreme case even refusing to release players at all. Read Eddie Jones' comments on Warren Gatland and you might think this isn't such a farfetched situation. In the past it's been discussed England players going onto central contracts, giving the national team more control on their movements. If this does happen, decisions like Gatland's that draw the anger of national coaches could have real consequences.
On the face of it, the decision of Warren Gatland to call up players already in country may seem innocent, and logical. But it could have real consequences, because the Lions just aren't logical. The construct has never totally made sense, but it has persisted because of tradition, pride and sheer belief in the concept. Of course in the short-term the Lions will continue to fascinate and entertain in equal measure. But the Lions is a precious concept, and for it maintain its appeal to fans and brands alike, the coach needs to defend the value of the shirt just as much as the players tasked with wearing it.