The British and Irish Lions watch as a Maori warrior leads a haka upon their arrival in New Zealand. Photo: AP

The story has been told countless times, but it never gets old.

The year was 1974 and the British and Irish Lions were laying waste to South Africa. They had just belted the Springboks in the second Test, and were giving it a rip in their downtown Pretoria hotel.

Much beer had been imbibed. A couple of boxes had been set alight, and the hotel manager drenched with a hose pipe.

Captain Willie John McBride was summoned when things threatened to boil over. He strode downstairs wearing just his pants and smoking his pipe.

The apoplectic manager threatened to call the police. “Excuse me, but if you are going to get the police,” said the unflustered Irishman, “do you think there will be many of them?”

Far from being scandalous, the Lions were merely continuing a fine tradition of rugby tourists leaving their mark.

Six years before, a national newspaper accused the 1968 Lions of being the “worst behaved team ever to tour South Africa”, a distinction contested by legendary writer JBG Thomas, who argued that they had never set fire to a train carriage (like one of their predecessors had).

Two years after the ‘74 Lions, the All Blacks toured. Upon his arrival, fullback Kit Fawcett mentioned to a female reporter “we’re going to score more off the field than on it”. The front page lapped it up.

Willie John McBride poses with Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and Heyneke Meyer in Dublin during the Springbok tour in November 2014. Photo: Ashfak Mohamed

What of Blair Mayne, the university boxing champion, who toured SA with the Lions in 1938? He used to go down to the docks to pick fights with the stevedores just for fun.

One night he found himself propping up a bar with some South Africans for company. He was asked if he’d be interested in shooting a real springbok at one of their farms.

Still dressed in his white tie and tails, off he went. The next morning, Mayne staggered into breakfast with a springbok draped around his neck, blood everywhere.

Naturally, he took off upstairs and promptly shoved the carcass into the bed of teammate Jimmy Unwin.

I was reminded of these high-jinks this week because the refrain from the British press in New Zealand has been to whinge and complain about the demands of touring on the team.

It’s not helped that modern rugby trips have become antiseptic affairs that are managed to the nth degree. Amid the need for protein shakes, video deconstruction and official engagements, there’s little time for characters to emerge.

Warren Gatland surrounded by the Lions coaching staff Andy Farrell, Steve Borthwick and Robert Howley. Photo: Brian Lawless, PA

Even those with personalities find the lid put on them by media officers who trade in cliché and PR-speak.

The danger is the Lions becoming inward-looking rather than embracing the joys of a tour. Indeed, it is they alone who still enjoy the privilege of touring, a concept that sadly failed to survive the move to professionalism in the 1990s.

More’s the pity because rugby surrendered some of its soul in the endeavour to reshape the game. Now, tours are smash-and-grab affairs where teams fly in and fly out, barely moving beyond hotels, airports and stadiums. People on the platteland never get to meet them. There’s little time for fun.

The all-seeing eye of the media has had much to do with it. Players might yearn for the adventures and fun of their forebears, many of whom heartily drank beers with the media, but things are much different now. The players seldom mix with the media, much less share a beer. The trust has gone.

Misbehaving used to be a badge of honour, a rite of passage even, but we live in the age of rage where political correctness holds sway.

I wouldn’t countenance a player tearing up a hotel room for fun, but there is something to be said for team bonding, and whether that manifests itself in a heavy booze session or a naked sprint down a hotel passageway shouldn’t matter a whole lot.

It’s difficult not to be nostalgic at times like these. The Lions are probably on the last real tour – thanks to the avaricious demands of clubs – and the very concept is an anachronism in the fast-food age. More’s the pity.

The game might be awash in money and the rest of it, but the old buggers doubtless had a grander time.

Sunday Tribune

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