The British and Irish Lions players celebrate after winning the match against the All Blacks. Photo: Anthony Phelps/Reuters

The British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand has been truly wonderful. 

The seemingly crazy decision to play the Super Rugby teams and the Maoris in short time has lifted the whole endeavour to a level unmatched in rugby history.

In effect, we have had a Test match twice a week, building up to a series of three games that are of a status above normal Test rugby.

The first half last week was one of the most gripping 40 minutes imaginable. The Lions tore into the hosts but failed to finish. The All Blacks then surprised by focusing on the Lions pack and its surrounds and in doing so, took a leaf straight out the Danie Craven play-book.

“Doc” always advised taking on opponents’ strengths rather than weaknesses. Remember when he spoke to the South American side that had been hammered by the Springboks in the first Test in Pretoria all those years ago? He suggested the Jaguars take on the mighty Bok pack. 

The second Test a week later in Bloemfontein saw it happen and flyhalf Hugo Porta gave a master class that resulted in a massive upset.

Instead of running the Lions wide last week, the Kiwis first took them on up front, stifled their backs and in the middle part of the game, expanded play and looked like the complete rugby side.

The Lions scored one of the all-time great tries, up there with Gareth Edwards’s against the Barbarians, and never gave up. In the end it was 30-15 which was a fair reflection of play. What a game!

What has amazed me about the tour is the reaction of rugby legends as they are watching it. Working with the likes of John Smit, Victor Matfield, Breyton Paulse and Butch James, it’s clear they’re as enchanted as the rest of us.

Nothing is predictable. The results are hard to call. The defensive play is frightening in its intensity, and the collisions have us wincing in the studio.

By modern standards, tries are a relative rarity. As such, the currency of each has risen. This is surely the way rugby should be played - a hard, unrelenting game with rare moments of creative and spectacular beauty that are talked about forever.

Last week, watching in studio, I had a moment of revelation, bizarre and totally unexpected. Yes, rugby people are enthralled, but what about the rest? What about the millions around the world for whom rugby is not a passion?

They could just as easily watch wrestling, Come Dine With Me, or Kardashian soaps. How would they see the historic tour unfold? Rather than a titanic battle between two belief systems and styles - rugby philosophies, even - they’d just see a seemingly endless procession of giant men crashing into each other in front of a Coliseum-like crowd. 

Every so often, they’d see a small guy kicking the ball as high as he can up into the air. Over and over this is repeated and occasionally, another little guy kicks the ball between sticks that resemble capital letters. Pretty soon the kids are screaming for the remote and so are the adults.

It’s the same in a cricket Test where one side is hammered and spends the last day playing for a draw. Over after over of desperate defence against hostile pace and wily spin has cricket lovers glued to their sets, but others thinking they’re watching glue dry.

US gridiron football is spectacular when teams throw and receivers run, but when they play it tight, to the uninitiated it is turgid beyond belief. To the aficionado this is the game at its most crucial time as energy is used up and the vital battle for ascendancy is waged. 

To the rest it seems as pointless as it is boring. The excitement of the analysts on TV during the interminable stoppages adds insult to injury.

Or so it seems.

Here’s the question. In an age when TV revenue that depends on viewership numbers for advertising fuels a sport, can it survive by satisfying the connoisseur first and foremost? Sadly, no.

So expect rugby law changes and interpretations in the near future that outlaw blanket defence, curb line speed and restrict driving forward play.

Enjoy this amazing series because the next one will resemble basketball. Purity in rugby will give way to expediency. Mark my words.

“And all men kill the thing they love, by all let this be heard, some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word.”

Enjoy the rest of the tour because it is truly unique.

* Robbie is a former Transvaal, Ireland and British Lions scrumhalf.

Saturday Star

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