Playing British Lions matches at ‘home’ would ruin the whole ethos says John Spencer

THE prospect of the British & Irish Lions playing at home this summer does not sit easily with John Spencer, who fears there could be lasting damage to one of rugby’s most famous entities if such plans do proceed.

Seasoned traveller: Former British LIons, England and Headingley centre John Spencer, the current president of Wharfedale RUFC, was also the Lions tour manager for the 2017 trip to New Zealand and is against the famous side playing it’s matches at ‘home’. Picture:Adam Davy/PA Photo
Seasoned traveller: Former British LIons, England and Headingley centre John Spencer, the current president of Wharfedale RUFC, was also the Lions tour manager for the 2017 trip to New Zealand and is against the famous side playing it’s matches at ‘home’. Picture:Adam Davy/PA Photo

As someone who played on the famous 1971 victorious tour of New Zealand, and returned there four years ago as tour manager of the 2017 vintage, Spencer knows plenty about the Lions’ ethos, tradition and spirit.

South Africa are due to host them in July and August but the Covid situation there means that is impossible, unless the three Test series is played behind closed doors which seems equally implausible given the size of the financial loss.

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Of the prospective solutions, Australia have invited both sides to play the tour on their shores or the original schedule could be delayed until 2022.

Experienced: Warren Gatland, left, will again lead the British & Irish Lions against South Africa after fulfilling the same role under tour manager John Spencer, right, in 2017. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire

However, the plan gathering most momentum, especially since it was announced this week that crowds could be back in stadiums as early as April and all lockdown restrictions may be ended by June 21, is for the tourists to become the hosts.

London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Dublin could all be in the running for Test matches if the drastic idea comes to fruition with a warm-up game against Japan having already long since being pencilled in for Murrayfield on June 26.

For Spencer, the former Headingley and England centre who was born in Grassington and remains president of Wharfedale RUFC, it is hard to comprehend.

“I’m very much of the Willie John McBride school on this and a load of other significant Lions, things” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“The Lions is not just a series of clinical games of rugby; it’s about touring, knowledge and respect of the host country as well as the legacy you can leave.

“The Lions enjoy going to those countries every four years – whether South Africa, Australia or New Zealand – and engaging with the communities, whether townships, schools, colleges, hospitals or rugby clubs.

“Playing it anywhere other than South Africa this year may well help to destroy the ethos of the Lions; the very creed of the Lions is going to another country.

“It’s about spreading the gospel of rugby and all these countries absolutely adore the Lions.

“What other sports take 30,000 fans halfway around the world? When you think of that and what they bring to the local economy there’s that aspect, too: the financial side of it all.

“I’m not sure what will happen next but if they did have it here I’m not sure crowds would flock to see the Lions at home anyway.

“I just think it loses some of its character. When you have 30,000 fans milling around the streets of Cape Town and then going to the match in the evening, there is something special about that sort of Lions occasion.”

Spencer, 73, added: “I was talking to (Wales centre) Jamie Roberts about this and he said as a player – who toured in 2009 and 2013 – there is something special about touring and the character of Lions that’s different to Six Nations or anything else.

“He would be very sad to see it go this way and feels playing it in this country would dissipate it further from the Lions and might even dilute it down to nothing.

“That would be a great shame as it is one of the most profitable and enjoyable aspects of world rugby; everybody likes the Lions, all the countries we visit, as we have no political agenda.

“We’ve no history between nations; we have no nationality.”

A decision is expected by the end of next month but Spencer is adamant about how he would like matters to be resolved.

He said: “I’d like to see the tour postponed for a year and then everyone will have exactly the same in South Africa in 2022.

“I gather, though, that the four home nations have objected to that because they want more time for preparation for the World Cup; it will only give them one year between the Lions tour and the 2023 World Cup.

“But I don’t see that as a legitimate argument. They can come and play for the Lions and have just a week to prepare together to play the world champions on their own patch – which is what happens – but a year is not enough to prepare for a World Cup...?

“I find it a little disingenuous to say they haven’t enough time.”

But the former RFU president has plenty of sympathy for Lions chairman Jason Leonard and the logistical nightmare ahead.

“I’ve spoken to Jason a few times about what the difficulties must be at the minute,” he said.

“As tour manager, I was in office for three years before we went and there is so much going on: Lions meetings, sponsors, kit, training venues...

“Or suddenly Prince Albert of Monaco rings up and asks if he can come to training tomorrow so that needs reorganising...!”

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