Following Saturday’s defeat to Papua New Guinea, which ensured Great Britain finished their tour of the southern hemisphere without a win, I had planned to write an article about how to save the Lions.
But I was stopped in my tracks when I read the very ominous-sounding comments made by RFL rugby director Kevin Sinfield this afternoon.
He said: “Bringing it back was always going to be about seeing what the interest was like in the southern hemisphere but prior to PNG, there hadn’t been a full stadium.
“Maybe the appetite isn’t quite what it was made out to be – and that will be part of the post-tour review.”
So perhaps the question isn’t ‘how do we save the Lions?’, it’s ‘are the Lions worth saving?’.
Let’s start at the new beginning.
The announcement that Great Britain were coming back was positively received but not surprising.
Talk of a GB return had gathered momentum for years and on 9 May 2017, we were finally told that ‘the pride is back’.
But it took more than two years for the team to play its first match and almost as long for the RFL to announce the dates and opponents.
More frustratingly, what ‘defines’ the Lions and makes them different from England was and never has been explained.
This isn’t as simple as saying Welsh, Irish and Scottish players are eligible, it’s things like the teams they play, the tournaments they take part in and how the Lions’ calendar will slot in alongside England’s.
If these elements were in fact discussed then they certainly weren’t publicised.
It doesn’t have to be that complicated either. England for World Cups and other tournaments, with Great Britain touring every four years between World Cups.
But whatever you decide – announce it! Let players, fans, stakeholders and sponsors know your plans. Or did we never have faith that the concept would survive the autumn?
The recently completed Tour saw the Lions face three different nations at the end of a season that had already been extended by a Nines tournament competed in by England.
Next time (if there is one), don’t Tour the same year as a Nines tournament.
And wouldn’t it have been fantastic to see the Lions play against a couple of clubs and regional rep sides?
Take a 30-man squad and you can easily accommodate a fuller schedule by rotating the players.
We can’t help the issues faced by Tonga this year, but even before all that, the tour schedule looked distinctly uninspiring.
There was nothing new, nobody ‘we’ hadn’t faced before.
I’m not getting into the Bennett debate other than to say that I agree Great Britain should be coached by somebody who isn’t already the England coach.
Having Bennett in the role made it even more difficult to define the brand as being different and special.
And yes he should have played Handley on the wing, not Austin.
But there’s other stuff, too.
The Lions didn’t have their own social media channels – the brand just hijacked the RFL’s accounts – which I’d expect will quietly change back to normal at some point next week.
There were several other social media brands floating about too and none of them were ‘owned’ by the Lions or verified as official – a mess, basically!
Even the hashtag – #GBRLLions – was rubbish and perhaps reflected the RFL’s lack of confidence that the brand would resonate as being different from the Rugby Union Lions.
Look deeper and we saw the same commercial partners as England as well as the same kit manufacturer.
Presumably the Lions were bundled in to sweeten the deal for the likes of Dacia, but, while things like social media accounts and logos on shirts may seem trivial, it’s all part of the bigger picture and another opportunity missed to build a distinct brand.
Despite all that, I think the Lions are worth saving.
But even if we agree that they are, has the damage already been done?
Sinfield’s comments this afternoon sound a bit like he thinks it has, but hopefully there’ll be no knee-jerk decision.
And if it is to return, I hope we think about it a bit more strategically, with a more coherent long-term vision to create a distinct brand that will help heal the Lions’ wounded pride.
By Tom Coates
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