This is a question that is often poised both pre and post tour yet thankfully time and again the answer always ends up being yes.
Going in to this tour it was a very strange build up. Before the squad was even announced there was mutterings of perceived bias towards Welsh players due to Warren Gatland being picked as head coach, which was not only dismissing the form of the current crop of internationals from all the home nations, but was also hugely insulting to both the coaching staff and the players eventually picked.
We then had the uproar about the internationally retired Johnny Wilkinson not being called up. Despite he himself stating he physically wasn’t up to the tour, large swathes of the press decided to create hell that he wasn’t chosen. Sadly it was to be a theme of the press throughout the tour, which threatened to undermine, spoil and negate just exactly what it is the Lions stands for.
It was followed by negativity after negativity; the trip to Hong Kong was a waste, the Lions were playing understrength teams and on and on it went. Whilst there were valid points (especially about some understrength sides) it completely failed to capture or portray just how exactly the magic of the Lions was working its magic in Australia.
As a fan still stuck at home, it was with a rather deflated view that the build up for the first test began. Again we were smacked in the face by pundits banging the drum for their favourites, being quick to insult or dismiss other players without any reasoning behind it. Team selection and performance will always create debate, but it was with the almost spite and complete inaccuracy that it was poured forth in the public domain that made it so distasteful. Stuart Barnes’ comments about the injury to the upstanding captain Sam Warburton as being a “blessing” were right up there with the worst.
There was far too much spite, far too much infighting spurred on by segments of the media, for this Lions tour to be truly enjoyable.
And then rolled on my trip to Sydney.
The Lions magic was well and truly alive and kicking in Australia. Everywhere you walked there were red Lions shirts, there was a buzz and a vibe of positivity that the media back in Britain and Ireland hadn’t even come close to picking up on. There was controversy over the team selection, yet despite some misgivings there was complete unity amongst the fans about getting behind the team.
At that incredible match all four nations’ fans truly united as one. Captain for the night Alun-Wyn Jones rightly stated that the players were representing the four nations; let those that questioned the players and coaches commitment to the Lions hang their heads in shame.
Upon returning home it was not long before I discovered just how out of hand the press and social media had become. Seeing that some Ireland fans had decided to support Australia instead of the Lions due to the dropping of Brian O’Driscoll made me see just how out of sync some of the fans who stay at home are when compared to those who are out there on tour.
The sheer personal, aggressive and downright incorrect slating of coach Warren Gatland leaves a very horrible taste. It has marred what should have been the end to an exceptional tour. What should have been a huge celebration of being only the 5th team in 125 years to secure a tour series victory has been bathed in a controversy that has almost singularly been supplied by large swathes of crass journalism.
So are the Lions still relevant? Having gone on tour, met fans from all the four nations and seen just what it means to the players and everyone else personally involved with it – it’s an emphatic yes. If I’d have stayed at home and had to sit through the torrent of negativity for yet another week, I’d have been very tempted to say no.
The Lions is something that is truly special. It is a positive experience, a unifying experience and one steeped in tradition and respect. It was what I experienced out in Australia, I just wish it had been experienced more in the home nations too.