Once every four years, a momentous thing happens. The warring tribes of the British Isles put aside their differences, forget colonial pasts and call a temporary ceasefire to unite under one fearsome, blood-red banner. Once every twelve years, they mount an assault on the most formidable enemy of all: the Maori tribes of the South Seas. 2017 is that year.
This may all sound a tad glib, like it should be read in a throaty, stylised American accent, booming out of a cinema speaker. Over-dramatic, you could say. Well, you’d be wrong. This summer world sport’s most unique alliance assembles to face its sternest test: The British and Irish Lions tour New Zealand. Ordinarily, the prospect would be enough to strike fear into the heart of any Saxon or Celt, but this time around there is a palpable sense of possibility, if maybe not downright optimism.
The northern hemisphere sides – for the most part – are heading in an upward direction, playing with a verve and vibrancy that we haven’t seen for some time. The combined talent pool of the home nations boasts some of the hottest prospects in global rugby. The effervescent Stuart Hogg, the frighteningly dynamic Maro Itoje, the scintillating Robbie Henshaw: each of them have a genuine chance to set the world alight in 2017, and they are by no means alone. With three months until Warren Gatland names his 37-man squad for the tour, there are plausibly as many as 70 in with a realistic shout of boarding the plane. All of which makes an already intriguing Six Nations absolutely unmissable, as some of the best players in the world audition for a spot on the biggest tour.
In rugby, as with any sport, it’s all about momentum. If Scotland can continue their recent revival for the next six weeks, we can expect to see a greater contingent than the meagre three that travelled to Australia in 2013. The Irish already have a head start in the selection process, as they have in their armoury a very rare weapon indeed: a win against the All Blacks. If, as widely touted, they provide the most robust test to England’s grand slam credentials, it’s a fair bet that the touring camp will have a heavy hint of green. And then there’s England themselves. A domestic game in rude health has led to the kind of strength in depth that coaches dream of, and the likes of Ford, Joseph and Vunipola could well play key roles in the summer. For Wales, Faletau, Liam Williams and Alun-Wyn Jones are shoe-ins, but a good Six Nations could result in those three keeping familiar company in the summer.
Whatever the make-up of the squad this summer, the absolutely crucial thing if the Lions are to roar is that we have the Six Nations we are all hoping for. Drab, dour rugby will not beat New Zealand in their own backyard, so a drab, dour tournament would be the worst possible preparation. Once again, it’s all about momentum.