Thanks for the warm-up, now the Lions must roar
22:27 GMT, 30 August 2012
The glorious success of London 2012 has created a renewed fervour for high-class sport around the country and an appetite to acclaim more heroes under the Team GB banner.
There is a void to be filled and rugby is ready to oblige — with significant Irish input. In hindsight, the timing might be seen as a masterstroke.
With the Paralympics topping up the euphoria in the UK, the Lions will belatedly announce on Tuesday that Wales coach Warren Gatland will lead the tour party to Australia next summer.
Leading the way: Wales coach Warren Gatland is expected to lead the British and Irish Lions on the tour of Australia
Meanwhile, Down Under, his fellow Kiwi in charge of the Wallabies, Robbie Deans, is under fire following his team’s stuttering start to the new Rugby Championship.
It’s a perfect storm to grab public attention. The Lions bandwagon will begin to gather momentum now that someone is in charge and the vision of vulnerable rivals will heighten the anticipation.
There will be more than the usual feelings of hope and expectation to go with the fantasy rugby predictions about the make-up of the Test team for the three-match series.
As was so apparent from the Olympics, the ability to engross the nation — or (home) nations — is dependent on success. Gold was the currency in London, but in Sydney it boils down to a final scoreline; 3-0 is the dream, but 2-1 will do, anything less is not good enough. The prestige of the Lions is unquestioned, yet victories are too sporadic.
Part of the team: Gatland was part of Ian McGeechan Lions coaching team in South Africa in 2009
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For rugby here to imprint itself on the wider public psyche for more than a fleeting few weeks, it needs the spin-offs of triumph; the ticker-tape welcome home, the awards and New Year’s gongs, the Downing Street reception, the chat show appearances — everything that the athletes and cyclists and rowers are savouring at present.
If the Lions prevail, rugby can hold the attention of new fans in a way that those sports cannot.
Ideally, the feel-good buzz would roll on into the home World Cup in 2015, with those separate factors enhancing the game as never before.
Part of the Olympic appeal was the ability to revel in personal glory for decent, hard-working competitors, well, rugby can offer that joy too — with those involved, even at Test level, largely polite and approachable and grounded.
Between now and departure in late May there will be injuries and suspensions. Britain and Ireland’s finest will be battered and patched up and undoubtedly not at full strength, but they can still win.
So don’t pack away the Team GB flag. Grab an Irish one too and stand by for the next big sporting fix.
World Cup aim: Stuart Lancaster is expected to guide England into the top seeds for the World Cup
Lancaster's modest target set to increase
While Deans is being savaged in Australia because his Wallabies, ranked No 2 in the IRB charts, can’t beat New Zealand, England head coach Stuart Lancaster will be judged on more modest terms for the remainder of 2012.
He has to maintain the country’s current fourth place in the rankings to claim top-seed status for the World Cup draw in December.
Yet, in time the demands will grow and Lancaster concedes that by 2015, he will need seven to 10 ‘world-class’ players in his squad; classified as among the top three in their position globally.
At present, perhaps only prop Dan Cole could be placed in that category. Chris Ashton scaled those heights when he was scoring tries for fun but has dropped back since, while either Danny Care or Ben Youngs could fulfil Lancaster’s stringent criteria when at their peak.
Others such as Courtney Lawes have the raw credentials, but as yet lack a gold-plated Test c.v. No wonder the coach said: ‘We need to give a few diamonds a good polish.’
Time for stars to add some sparkle
The Aviva Premiership swings back into action on Saturday with all the fanfare of a glamour occasion at Twickenham. Following a spring and summer of upheaval at so many clubs, it promises to be an intriguing campaign.
Once again, the authorities will trumpet the competitive edge provided by 12 clubs bound by the leveller of a modest salary cap, focusing on the high proportion of single-digit margins of victory. Yet it is time for the Premiership to alter the way it judges itself.
Tight finishes should not be the only barometer. There has been a distinct lack of stardust, so the arrival of stellar names such as Danny Cipriani, Gavin Henson, James Haskell, Richie Gray and Jimmy Cowan is timely.
Star quality: Danny Cipriani is back in the Aviva Premiership and looking to shine for Sale
Relegation and innate conservatism have created a dearth of attacking sparkle, so the hope must be that more coaches follow the tone set by Leicester, who were run-away top try-scorers last season, and champions Harlequins, who prospered with a high-octane, bold approach.
Let’s banish the safety-first cycle of kick-and-chase-and-pressurise, and hopefully the new scrum and ruck laws will help by enforcing greater tempo and purpose.
But the Premiership needs substance too, not just greater style — it cannot afford another season of European failures, or the prospect of a Lions squad overwhelming dominated by Celts from the RaboDirect PRO12 league.
The last word
The consensus view is that a grim fate awaits London Welsh in the Premiership. Whatever ordeals they suffer, there can be no doubt their promotion from the Championship was absolutely the right outcome from their appeal.
That was a question of principles, fairness and the need to foster ambition in the second tier. Yet having their entry confirmed so late has surely condemned the Exiles to a series of thumping defeats and relegation.
Their predicament should serve to hasten efforts by the RFU and Professional Game Board to sort out the injustices contained within the Minimum Standards Criteria governing entry to the Premiership — primarily concerning the primacy of tenure issue.
Officials have pledged to tidy up the mess by the end of September and that deadline must be adhered to, so that clubs have clarity and the spectre of a non-promotion or survival-by-technicality are averted.