Lion Kings

Something has been nagging at us recently – why are the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions favourites for the test series? On Betfair right now, the Lions are 1.7 and the Wobblies 2.6. We’re a bit confused. We don’t argue with the idea that this looks a good Lions squad – they’ve a nice blend of experience from four (and eight …. and twelve!) years ago and young tyros, have an excellent fly half, and are playing in the easiest place top tour of the three Southern Hemisphere biggies.

But … favourites? Part of us thinks that no invitational team, no matter how many of Ian McGeechan’s tears are stitched into the shirt, should ever beat a test nation worth its salt. Another, more romantic, part watches the footage of the 1974 tour and thinks anything is possible. Still … favourites?

The Six Nations, opening weekend and final game aside, was an abomination this year, characterised by stodgy rugby, low skill levels and 6.5’s (Justin Tipuric aside). The best two club teams in the Northern Hemisphere, Toulon and Clermont, have precisely one representatives on tour – Toulon bench-warmer Gethin Jenkins. Admittedly, that is partly out of choice of the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions coaches; and the other standout of recent years, Leinster, have six.

Recent statistics aren’t imposing, but are certainly in the Australians favour:

  • Since the last Lions tour, Australia have won 12, drawn 1 and lost 8 of their 21 homes games – four of the losses have been to New Zealand, one to South Africa and one to Samoa
  • They have beaten Wales (3), Ireland (1) and England (1) in that period, and lost to England (1) and Scotland (1) – thats a 5-2 win-loss record at home
  • Australia have eight successes in a row against Wales, and have won 17 of 20, with one draw, since the game went open]
  • Last November, the Australians won in Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium

Also, what about the world rankings? Australia are third, a cigarette paper behind South Africa, and with some daylight between themselves and England (4), Wales (5), Ireland (9) and Scotland (10). The Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions are composed of the cream of those four (plus Matt Stevens), but in reality, the Test side is going to be mostly a Welsh-Irish composite, or, in other words, a fifth-ninth composite. Does fifth-ninth beat third? Maybe.

We think the Lions favouritism is actually majorly driven by all the doubts surrounding this Aussie team. The bond between management, players and fans seems loose, at best, right now. Their best player is out in the cold (for the moment). They have a propensity to occasionally lose to inferior sides. But still, the best side in Super Rugby so far this season is the ACT Brumbies. The Queensland Reds won it the year before last. Its only halfway through the year for them, unlike their opponents. It just seems odd that the Lions are so fancied, and for the first time in living memory.

Since the Invincibles tour, the Lions have won two Test series from nine – 1989 in Australia and 1997 in South Africa. In 1989, the team was dominated by England and Scotland sides that went on to complete memorable Grand Slams  and contest a RWC semi-final in 1991. The 1997 South African tourists largely laid the template for the new pro-style Lions tours, with shorter duration, rampant commericialism and dewey-eyed reverence for a concept that seemed not to have a modern relevance.

This team will be dominated by Wales and Ireland – and Wales have lost all eight games against Australia in the last four years, while Ireland are coming off their worst Six Nations ever. The Liiiiiiiiiiiiions will need to call on all of that history, and hope that the players can rise to the occasion. Its going to be a massive challenge, and we are struggling with the idea that the Lions are genuine favourites.

ADDITION TO POST:

We’re aware Betfair odds (and to an extent bookies odds) are driven by supply and demand, but they are also driven by rational investors. Is it rational to have the Lions at 1.7?