What does Jeremy Corbyn have in common with the Lions rugby team? Nothing on first glance, you might say. Certainly, there isn’t an obvious connection between Labour’s unconventional leader and the cream of British Isles rugby. In fact, you probably think it bizarre that I mention Corbyn in the same breath as a sports discussion. After all, one imagines that the socialist poster boy wasn’t exactly a campus jock in his university days. No, there isn’t an apparent correlation between the two subjects. Unless, that is, we think in terms of disappointment and comeback.
By now, we all know the result of the British General Election. The unfashionable and much derided Corbyn was written off in all quarters for months, only to make a creditable, astonishing comeback and force a hung parliament; snatching authority, if not quite power, from an incredulous Theresa May. Indeed, the Tory prime minister only called the snap election in order to obtain an enhanced mandate to help navigate an easier path in the treacherous negotiations re: the United Kingdom’s imminent withdrawal from the European Union. Many believe that the decision to call the election was based on an unjustified and arrogant assumption that the outcome was a fait accompli; that an augmented Tory majority was essentially inevitable.
In this respect, a parallel can be drawn with the plight of the Lions navigating their own way through rugby’s toughest tour on the other side of the world. As detailed previously on these pages, a Lions tour to New Zealand is the closest thing to mission impossible in the oval ball game. The reasons are obvious. Not only do Gatland’s men have to find a way to overcome one of the greatest teams ever, they must also negotiate one of the most febrile rugby environments visiting teams can encounter. The tourists must contend not only with the brilliant All Blacks, but also the most fanatical supporters imaginable and a proudly panegyric press.
It’s no mean task. And there are signs that the Lions will struggle. The Lions’ last crusade to the land of the long white cloud famously ended in a 3-0 whitewash and the current world champions are red hot favourites to inflict similar agony this time. The Lions laboured to an unconvincing win over the Provincial Barbarians in the opening game of the tour and followed that up last week with a loss against a Blues side that had been roundly written off beforehand. Yesterday’s win over the unbeaten Crusaders was a vastly improved performance, full of forward power and defensive grit, but it’s foolish to think this effort would be enough to vanquish the peerless All Blacks.
Yet there is hope that the Lions are slowly gaining the match fitness and competitiveness needed to muster a serious challenge. The tourists’ set-piece looks solid and dependable, while Andy Farrell’s defensive system has the potential to shut down even the best attacking units, on the evidence of yesterday’s effort. Although the patterns employed thus far are nothing we haven’t seen before from a Gatland coached team, we are starting to see some of the shape and cohesion that was missing in the first two fixtures. Teething problems are inevitable, after all, with a scratch team. One doubts that the Lions can upset Steve Hansen’s hosts with predictable attacking systems, but there’s no reason the Lions coaches won’t have a few tricks up their sleeves for the Test series. After all, no team wants to reveal its hand too early.
For all that, the first few games of the tour have reiterated what a stupendously tall order this mission is. The Blues were branded as the weakest and most ineffectual of the Kiwi Super Rugby franchises and yet they were miles ahead of the tourists in terms of attacking flair and creativity. As earnestly as the Lions toiled in Auckland, it was the hosts who played all the rugby and looked much more likely to score tries. And that’s the problem. There is a depth and ingenuity in New Zealand rugby that the Lions struggle to emulate. We know the tourists won’t lack for effort, but making up the deficit in skill won’t be as easy.
You see, the Kiwis can do everything the Lions can do. Their forwards are just as good, if not better, than the visitors. They wouldn’t be double world champions otherwise. But Hansen’s men are in a different league when it comes to attacking potency and individual skill. That’s the point of difference. Ask yourself: can you imagine any northern hemisphere team attempting, let alone successfully executing, the sublime double offload that won the game for the Blues last Wednesday? It wouldn’t happen. You can only stifle and contain brilliance for so long. Sooner or later, it will destroy you if left unchecked. And no defensive system, no matter how thoroughly instilled and courageously implemented, can hope to keep New Zealand’s backs subdued for 80 minutes. For the Lions, therefore, attack might be the best form of defence if mission impossible is to at least be attempted. It’s time to think outside the box. Can it be done? We know it’s a huge ask but the Lions can take heart from recent events. After all, an organisation can be mocked and universally written off, only for it to make a spirited comeback and come within a whisker of unexpected success. Doubtful? Just ask Jeremy Corbyn.
By Andrew Hazard for National Assembly for Wales / Cynulliad Cymru [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons