The 1997 British and Irish Lions tour is one that Alex Payne vividly remembers. He expertly pinpoints why the success of that tour shaped the Lions in years to come.
“That really was the tour that modernised the Lions because of its victory and it was professional. The world was becoming much more global.”
Since 1997, Sky Sports have been a key partner of the British and Irish Lions. The arrival of Sky was timed beautifully with the beginning of professionalism in rugby union which happened two years previously.
Sky and The Lions
Sky Sports launched in 1990. From their arrival, the sports broadcasting landscape in the United Kingdom was changed dramatically in a way that was never seen before.
It would take Sky four years into its life as broadcaster before they decided to show rugby union. Sky showed a game from the top division every week on the network.
International coverage to the network followed soon after with the RFU agreeing a deal to show England’s Autumn Internationals in 1996.
The jewel in the crown was complete a year later when Sky took on the Lions tour. Previously, coverage of the Lions had gone back and forth between BBC and ITV.
Payne explains what set the broadcaster apart from its terrestrial counterparts.
“What Sky did was say that we’re really going to throw the works at this, every Saturday, every Tuesday whatever day it is, you will be able to watch the Lions on Sky. So everyone knew the whole thing was happening and where to be and when.
“They were never afraid to add a dash of hyperbole. They made iconic montages at the start, that made huge significance to the sporting contest and they were good at the hype and that helped and they put a lot of money into it as well.
“They treated the Lions with great reverence, and that has helped them in the journey that they’ve been on in the past 20-25 years.
“Sky have had a very good impact with the Lions. There is obviously the free-to-air and the pay per view debate and that reared its head massively in 2017 particularly in that third and decisive test but if you put it on terrestrial, you don’t get the money and that is very important for the Lions, they have to have cash to hire the players because they’re a commercial entity.”
The partnership between Sky and the Lions continues for its 24th year and seventh test series. However, the Lions will have free-to-air exposure as Channel 4 will show highlights across the tour marking the Lions arrival back to terrestrial television ensuring an equal balance is struck. Channel 4 will also screen live coverage of the Lions against Japan at Murrayfield later in June.
“The Lions are challenged”
When professionalism began in rugby union, it completely changed the way the sport operated. The days of players leaving the day job to tour with the Lions were no longer. Professionalism allowed the sport to blossom like never before in terms of sponsorship deals and rugby becoming a more global game.
The Lions have only won one tour since 1997 when they defeated an under-par Wallabies outfit. A draw against the All Black in 2017 further strengthened the brand.
Payne sees how powerful a brand the Lions is: “If your talking shirt sales alone the All Blacks and Munster sell more shirts but certainly the Lions, is one of the biggest pulling shirts out there.”
But over time the demands of professionalism have sadly seen the global calendar change. The Lions tour itself has been a victim of the amount of games that are played on the tour. Payne feels that the Lions are challenged every time they go on tour but sees the lack of games as erosion.
“They are challenged every time a tour and it’s very depressing to me and someone who values them so heavily that the tour has gone from 13 games to 10 games to 8 games, the prep time gets less and the challenge gets greater.
“It’s a really sad erosion of a glorious institution but I do think they mean so much to rugby fans and I think there would be real damage done to the game if the Lions aren’t protected. So I think their place in the game is very much assured but whether they are given the space and the time or given the opportunity to thrive. That is where the balance is right now.”
Payne also feels that the role of amateurism will always be key to future Lions success and maintains that Lions tours have to be fun.
“I think part of the Lions is that it does have an amateur ethos. In modern day sport bringing the largest egos, the most talented players together and cramming them into a five-week experiment and asking them to be successful.”
Memories of broadcasting the Lions
Payne worked his way up at Sky Sports to become their lead rugby union presenter around the early part of the past decade. His first tour was in 2013 down to Australia.
One name that Payne mentions in extensive detail when bring up memories of broadcasting the Lions is Sir Ian McGeechan. The former Scotland and Lions player had been a cornerstone for the Lions in both the amateur and professional era playing on the 1974 and 1977 tour, and coaching for the 1989,1993, 1997 and 2009 tours.
After being knighted for services to rugby, McGeechan turned his hand to punditry working for Sky on two tours, 2013 and 2017.
In the final week of the 2013 tour, things had gone against the Lions with Australia rising to the occasion. The Lions lost the second test by a point and Captain Sam Warburton was ruled out of the final test through injury. Controversially Brian O’Driscoll was dropped from the final test side which caused furore in the press especially in Ireland.
Payne described the atmosphere in the studio in Sydney as flat before McGeechan lifted spirits: “We went on air with everyone feeling a little bit down but it was Geech who picked it first. We were 20 minutes into an hour-long build up and he looked over his shoulder and saw Gatland in a tracksuit and he just said “there’s something happening” and there is something that is turning here” it actually makes the hairs on the back my neck stand up. He called it, he saw it, he sensed it and we went from feeling pretty flat in our build up when the Lions were up against it and looking long odds just to thinking there is something that is going to happen here.”
For Payne the build-up to the third test was reminiscent of another famous game he broadcasted, English rugby’s most renowned modern victory against the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2012: “I did the England v All Black game in 2012 and England were dire that autumn, absolutely appalling but everyone arrived at Twickenham that day and just thought there is something in the air, there is a crackle, a tension.”
When reflecting on that third test, Payne adds: “There are days in sport, were people hit the flow like Ben Stokes at Headingley, they get in the groove and that was one of those days.
“It seemed a fairly hopeless cause and by the end the Lions were laps ahead of the Wallabies and came home in great style.
McGeechan also had a part to play in 2017 albeit in unfortunate circumstances. Before the second test, he had been taken ill and Sky had to make a decision whether to cancel the build-up and just show the game.
Sky went ahead with the build-up with Payne describing it as “the best build up we’ve ever done because it was pure adrenaline, excitement and just in the moment.”
The match turned out to be one of the most eventful tests of all time with the Lions edging out the hosts with All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams receiving a red card.
In contrast beforehand, Payne felt that the All Blacks would win the series that evening when walking down to the Westpac Stadium with Sky’s commentator, Miles Harrison.
“I think we were pretty adamant that the series was going to be done and dusted later that evening. That would’ve left us with a pretty dud third week.
“The Lions played absolute bilge for an hour and suddenly it was going to be the most disappointing defeat going down to 14 men with the series set to be saved etc and then low and behold they pulled the whole thing out of the bag.”
Broadcasting the Lions is a special gig for any presenter and one can see why Payne is passionate about the Lions. The third test in 2013 and the second test in 2017 were highlights in what has been a stellar rise for the broadcaster.
This summer will see Payne present his third Lions tour for Sky and whilst he felt that a possibility of a UK based Lions tour was ‘a missed opportunity’, he remains excited about presenting another tour.
And like all in the sporting world, it is one event that will shape the sporting summer in 2021 and Payne will be at the forefront for what will be a different but hopefully a memorable tour for all involved on and off the field.