Life with the Rugby Lions: Background to the 2009 Tour

January 14, 2009

lion-and-manager

The British and Irish Lions are preparing for the 2009 tour against the South African Springboks. Ian McGeehan is off-field leader of a team which will compete against the current world champions of rugby. He will also have to deal with the ‘mid-week team’ problem, and the potential off-field clash of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures

The tour has echoes of the famous 1997 tour in which the Lions had also visited South Africa. Coincidentally, the Springboks had at that time too been current world champions, and McGeehan had been chief coach of the Lions.

Background to the Rugby Lions

The British and Irish Lions reflect a cherished rugby tradition with a team assembled representing the members of the Home Nations championship (England, Scotland Ireland and Wales). The Lions players still come from these nations, although the original championship has long been extended to include France, and more recently Italy.

Anglo-Irish Politics and the North South divide

It should be noted that Ireland in this tournament is represented by a combined team with players from the Irish nation, and from the British and unionist province of Ulster. The issue of governance of Ireland has been one of the historically important ones for Ireland and the United Kingdom for many years, and became particularly intense and bloody over the period of The Troubles in the mid 1980s to the turn of the century. This was followed by a period of implementing the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement, which continues to the present time. We have reported this in an earlier post.

In popular shorthand, the North of the Island is the geographical core of the battle for a united Ireland, with cultural, geographic and religious tensions between North and South. Although a dangerous over-simplification, the ‘two cultures’ are often stereotyped as a Protestant North, and a Catholic South.

In a host of daily experiences, the citizens of Ireland co-exist within all-Ireland Institutions. In sport, the institutions include Rugby Union and League, Cricket, Hockey, as well as traditional Irish sports such as Hurling. Football is governed, in contrast, by Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland Bodies. Religious institutions are all all-Ireland in scope including the influential Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Anglican Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

In any study of sports management such cultural differences are likely to be a consideration. An obvious source of tension will be the inescapable fact that in most instances, the leader will be be drawn from one of the communities, and faces the challenge of creating and retaining team coherence, and of loyalty and respect from those coming from the other cultural traditions.

Distributed leadership and the midweek team problem

Over various tours, midweek matches have been played by a group of players considered less gifted than the squad playing the test matches and week-end matches. While in principle, mid-week players can ‘play their way’ into consideration for selection for the test-matches – the ultimate personal achievement – the reality is dealing with the presumption that they are second-best. This is a morale problem, which has deepened over time as the mid-week role has become increasingly recognised in these terms.

Disenchanted players find it easy to attribute non-selection to wider cultural preferences by the tour leadership. Clive Woodward’s lack of success as a Lions’ manager in 2005, after his world-championship success as England manager in 2003, was attributed, in part, to his failure to resolve the mid-week problem. The media (and players subsequently) made it a major issues, as week by week, the Lions limped through their New Zealand itinerary to humiliating defeat after defeat, losing the test series 3-0. Woodward’s coaching methods, man-management, and extended loyalty to the English players he knew well, all came under intense scrutiny..

Cultural symbolism

By the 1930s cultural diversity was implicitly and symbolically acknowledged in the team colours: red jerseys, white shorts, blue socks and green stocking-tops, (to represent Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland respectively). Recently, senstivities over labels had rresulted in an official name The British and Irish Lions, as well as the pithier label of The Lions

Follow the tour

Leaders we deserve will be following the 2009 tour, drawing on the views of sporting administrators and rugby experts. We hope the posts will interesting, enlightening, and maybe providing material which throws light on leadership issues in and beyond the world of rugby football. Quick polls will make for interesting evidence of changing views as the tour progresses. We welcome comments, and the wider distribution of the posts, to enrich discussions even further.

Polling your views