Learn a lesson from the Lions

Lumping a bunch of English, Irish, Welsh and Scots players together in the same team should be disastrous - but it isn't

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 3:49pm

Rugby has long been a festive occasion around here thanks to the Sevens. It's an annual Mardi Gras of pageantry and debauchery that has now grown into an international event, which is bursting at the seams. Tickets for the Hong Kong Sevens are cherished ducats with agencies all over the globe flogging packages for the event and legions of dubious touts flying in to cash in.

All of this would lead one to believe Hong Kong is truly a rugby town. Well, it certainly is a party town, arguably the binge drinking capital of the world. But as far as the rugby part goes only time will tell. The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union (HKRFU) has done yeoman's work in its attempt to develop a local rugby culture. There are thousands of children playing in youth programmes around the city and, considering the lack of proper pitches and green spaces, that is no small feat. You can play soccer and basketball on a concrete flat top but you most certainly cannot play rugby on it.

So any gains the HKFRU has made have been hard earned. However, this week will be a litmus test for the growth of rugby in Hong Kong.

When the British and Irish Lions take on the Barbarians at Hong Kong Stadium in a historic match on Saturday night, it behooves the rugby community to pull out all the stops to ensure a full house. In a town starved of world-class sporting events, this is certainly a reasonable facsimile. But it's not enough to just roll out the best players in the world.

Manchester United are also coming to town in July. That's a name that sells itself not only around here but globally as well.

When it comes to the Lions, though, we need to educate the uninitiated. People like me need a history lesson. The significance of this event needs to be hammered home. We need to know the Lions only tour every four years and they feature elite players from four pretty fierce rivals in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

When the Lions land at Chek Lap Kok on Tuesday, the Irish players should be easy to recognise. They will be the only ones not carrying UK passports and I know it sounds simple but for many of us simpletons the notion of the Irish and the English teaming up to play anything together is completely alien.

With a recent history of conflict between the two it seems only natural. So I asked my brother-in-law about this. He's a big sports fan originally from Northern Ireland who also owns a place in Dublin. I mean, surely there must be a well-documented history of tension in the Lions.

"Nope, no history of bad feelings between the Irish and the Brits, likewise between northern and southern Irish," he said, before adding with a laugh, "maybe the Scots and the English. But the only real tension is in fighting for spots on the team."

He then regaled me with tales of legendary Lions captain, Ireland international and British citizen Willie John McBride and tours of South Africa during the amateur era where nights in the pub before matches were mandatory.

I am certainly not trying to glorify late nights in pubs here, but to me the tale of McBride and his crew is the essence of rugby.

There is a camaraderie in the sport that is virtually unmatched and while the Sevens version we see around here annually has elements of that, 15-a-side is the real deal.

There is so much going on around the pitch they need to protect each other's backs. It may not be as fluid or entertaining and it won't be played in the 2016 Olympics like Sevens will, but the sheer physicality and rawness in the traditional game is impossible to ignore. Anyone who saw the final of the Rugby World Cup between France and New Zealand in 2011 could attest to that. I was sore just watching it.

I guess the highest compliment you could pay to 15-a-side rugby is that pretty much everyone I asked about issues between the English and Irish in the Lions squad almost immediately dismissed it as a silly question.

There is integrity in rugby, these guys are teammates first and foremost and everything else is immaterial. They know and appreciate this in places like Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney where the Lions will head next. We will find out on Saturday night if they know and appreciate this in Hong Kong as well.