In terms of TV money, sponsorship and profile, international rugby union has obviously left rugby league for dead, so this attempt to revive the Lions made a certain desperate sense. But they lose four out of four internationals, including to underdogs Papua New Guinea, and the future for the Lions is uncertain. It is England, Scotland, etc who play on the international stage. The parallels with the possible break-up of the UK are irresistible.
The players seem a determined and likeable group putting their bodies through huge trauma for not all that much in terms of financial reward, and certainly very little security. They are sponsored by Ronseal and they do exactly what it says on the tin: they train hard and they play for each other. No nonsense.
Ryan Hall gets a knee injury, and says his thoughts immediately went to his livelihood. Zak Hardaker says: “It’s not like footballers where you get paid enough money that you are excluded from society. You live next door to a joiner, you go to the same supermarket as your childhood mates.”
The team doctor, Gemma Phillips, says she has to make on-field concussion calls thinking not just about the match, but knowing: “I want to be sure whether my decisions are right for the rest of their life.” It all feels something like a war, specifically defending a position that is being overrun. The film also touches on the loss of identity for the northern towns.
The point about industrial decline, economic hardship and being cut adrift has been made before, but is poignantly expressed here, with the argument made that rugby league is practically the only thing keeping some of these places on the map now. It remains to be seen if the Conservative Government many of these places (astonishingly) voted in, and the Brexit that they (less surprisingly) called for, can help them “level up”. I suspect I know the answer and it looks like having a massive New Zealand rugby league opponent stamping on your face, forever. But, like the Lions, we will know for sure soon enough.
“Once Were Lions” is on iPlayer now