Lions 2013: Pride of place essential for 2017 tour to New Zealand

Lions series victories are as rare and precious as anything in sport.

As with damp clay on a potter's wheel there are no guarantees but, when it works out, the finished product has a genuinely special glaze. This 2013 tour now sits proudly alongside its triumphant predecessors of 1971, 1974, 1989 and 1997 as proof that rugby union in the northern hemisphere is better than it is sometimes painted.

The 16-year wait is over; at last the pride of Britain and Ireland can stop fretting over the future of the whole concept. Saturday's spectacular finale, above all else, has bought the Lions the luxury of time. The pressure is off, whether or not they win or lose next time around in New Zealand in 2017. The Lions can simply get on with being the Lions, rather than endlessly worrying whether the modern world is passing them by.

On the evidence of the past six weeks the opposite would seem true. To mingle with the thousands of red shirts swarming around Sydney Harbour on Saturday was to feel the intense love the jersey still generates. To clinch a series with the highest Test score in the Lions's 125-year history also shows what skilful hands can achieve. If their tactical approach was occasionally more builder's mug than delicate porcelain, the outcome was as satisfying as any since Jeremy Guscott dropped his winning goal in Durban in the early days of the professional era.

It was also accomplished against the odds. When Warren Gatland and his coaches reflect on a career-defining trip, their minds will spool back to the pre-tour training camps in Wales and Ireland when a third of the squad were absent on club duty. Imagine trying to mould and condition a team almost from scratch in a few days at the end of a long season with one hand tied behind your back? Gatland, his assistants and the fitness and medical staff, have worked wonders from a virtual standing start.

What might they do with proper preparation? It is a familiar question that Gatland, the Lions chairman, Gerald Davies, and the manager, Andy Irvine, will be re-emphasising at the first available opportunity on their return. Binding legal contracts are in place for the 2017 tour but it is still not beyond the wit of man for the domestic finals and European club showpiece – assuming there is one – to be moved back a fortnight in the calendar. So many in both hemispheres gain so much from Lions tours in terms of increased interest in the sport and the associated financial spin-offs that it is the very least the various administrators can do.

The feelgood factor should also extend to the four home nations individually as the focus switches to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. This tour party was not irresistible in every position but stand-out players such as Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies, Alex Corbisiero, Toby Faletau and Mako Vunipola are aged 24 or under. Fitness permitting, they could easily be around for another two Lions excursions.

This tour could yet infuse a whole generation with heightened ambition and the desire to conquer further peaks. Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs both loved the experience and feel they are returning home better players. Farrell, in particular, appeared to benefit hugely from working alongside Jonathan Sexton, while the likes of Justin Tipuric, Manu Tuilagi and Sean O'Brien now know what being a Test Lion means. It was instructive to hear Irvine stressing "what a great set of kids" the players have been on and off the field.

Naturally, not everything worked out perfectly. The initial party, from the outset, always seemed a player light in midfield and the midweek performance before the first Test was an uncomfortable blip. At times the tour schedule was too hectic and in danger of collapsing under the weight of corporate activity. The involvement of an Irish assistant coach, furthermore, might have drawn a little of the sting that greeted Brian O'Driscoll's omission from the final Test. Future Lions tours must also extract firmer promises regarding the strength of local provincial teams. Some of the early fixtures were barely worthwhile exercises.

The final ledger will show, though, that Gatland knew precisely what he was doing. His streak of Kiwi obduracy ruffles some feathers but he was proven right on numerous fronts. He correctly identified Andy Farrell as an outstanding young coach well worth taking a punt on, that Sam Warburton would set the unselfish tone he wanted and that the Welsh way, with additions, could still work against a Wallabies team who had beaten them repeatedly. Those of us who felt O'Driscoll would have been a valuable presence in the final Test were not completely wrong, as Gatland has generously acknowledged. Our big error was in assuming the wily coach had taken leave of his senses.

Fair play, and apologies for doubting him. As a coach and selector, he has now won almost everything in the game save for a World Cup. Those who know him best back in Waikato insist his level of intelligence continues to be underestimated. Given his hobbling gait following a serious fall while doing some DIY last year his momentum is gathering pace. How many coaches, too, would walk past a Melbourne restaurant, spot his counterpart Robbie Deans eating inside, and instantly decide to dine at the same establishment? Wrong-footing the opposition, even with sore heels, is Gatland's speciality.

No wonder Irvine protested swiftly when someone asked what were the chances of this mastermind coaching New Zealand against the Lions in four years' time. This result should help ensure Gatland fulfils his contractual commitment to Wales until the 2015 World Cup but, after that, his new super-coach status could take him anywhere.

"I may just hang up the boots, go to the beach and sit there with a glass of red wine and a cigar," Gatland smiled. If anyone deserves a stress-free break, he does.

Powered by article was written by Robert Kitson in Sydney, for The Guardian on Sunday 7th July 2013 22.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © National Assembly For Wales / Cynulliad Cymru