British and Irish Lions: Will the Lions Win Really Matter?

Jeff Hull@@HullatHomeContributor IIIJuly 20, 2013

Will the 2013 Lions win actually matter?
Will the 2013 Lions win actually matter?Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The British and Irish Lions have finally reversed their decades-old failure to secure a Test series win on tour, but will that win have any positive effect on the state of northern hemisphere rugby?

One person who is confident that it will is Wales attack coach Rob Howley. 

Only a short time after the historic Lions victory, Howley told the BBC that the win will move the bar forward for rugby in the home nations.

The manner of the win on Saturday - 41 points and scoring four tries to one - just shows we can do it. 

I've got no doubt, not only from a Welsh perspective, but all the players from England, Scotland and Ireland when they take on the southern hemisphere guys again they can go there knowing that they have beaten them.

The magnitude of [the fact that] we've beaten them over the past three weeks having been there so many times and been so close and yet so far away.

Mr. Howley's optimism, which comes on the heels of a huge Welsh contribution in the final Lions test, is unfortunately misplaced.

There is scant evidence that the home nations have reason to feel bullish following the recent Lions performances. 

Those performances, at least in Test matches one and two, were hardly worthy of optimism.

A brief look at the match reports from those first two fixtures reveals that, had it not been for a slip and fall by Australia's Kurtley Beale in match one, the Lions' long record of failure would have continued.

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Putting that aside for now, can northern hemisphere rugby truly be said to be on the upswing?

How Many Welshman Does It Take To.... ?

There was uproar around the globe when the roster for the final Lions Series Test was announced; however, Welsh rugby fans had the last laugh. No less than 10 Welshmen helped power the Lions to their best result of the series; but history tells us that the Welsh do not generally fare as well in the Southern Hemisphere when sporting their national colours. 

The Welsh have only beaten Australia twice in 23 matches, dating back to 1991. Their record against the southern hemisphere's other major powers is equally unimpressive.

Wales have not beaten New Zealand since 1953 and South Africa only once since 1906.

Many feel that the Welsh style of attacking play is the key to advancing the game in the northern hemisphere; however, until the sixth-ranked Welsh are able to post victories against the world's top teams, claims like these will inevitably ring hollow.

Ireland: The Decline And Fall

If only such statistics could effectively tell the story of Ireland's troubles in recent times. After narrowly missing out on the wooden spoon in the 2013 RBS Six Nations, Ireland eventually sent no less than 12 players to aid the Lions' cause down under.

The result of those departures was almost disastrous for the nation's International Rugby Board (IRB) rankings.

An understrength and inexperienced Ireland squad very nearly dropped the opening match of their summer tour in Texas, against an aggressive and ambitious squad from the USA.

In the end, only three of those 12 Irish players were deemed worthy enough to crack the Lions' starting 15 in the deciding match of the 2013 tour. Those omitted included the legendary Irish captain and talisman, Brian O'Driscoll.

O'Driscoll's departure is—in many ways—representative of the current state of Irish rugby, a nation that for years was among the world's elite but is now struggling to find its form.

Against those same three southern hemisphere powers, Ireland's record is significantly better than the Welsh, but not recently. 

True, Ireland defeated Australia at the 2011 World Cup, but they have only two other wins versus the Aussies in 21 matches dating back to 1981.

During O'Driscoll's prime, Ireland won three straight Autumn internationals against South Africa between 2004-2009, but have only one other win against the Springboks reaching back to 1906.

Ireland has never beaten New Zealand.

Scotland: When Will We See Your Like Again?

What to make of Scottish rugby these days?

Scotland may have struggled to a third-place finish in the 2013 RBS Six Nations, but they would go on to place only three players on the initial 35-man tour squad for the British and Irish Lions. None of these three players were in the starting 15 that would take the field for the Lions in the crucial deciding match versus Australia.

This may surprise some, especially since Scotland have come away with wins in their last two games against the Wallabies in 2012 and 2009. Unfortunately for the hard-pressed Scots, those are the only victories they have posted against Australia since 1982.

Scotland do hold an additional pair of wins against the Springboks since the dawn of the new millennium, while they—like Ireland—have never beaten New Zealand.

Such a record would certainly be respectable enough for a relatively small rugby nation, had it not also been accompanied by shocking losses like the one to Italy in 2012 or the crushing defeat at the hands of Samoa only a month ago.

While Scotland may still have what it takes to claim the occasional scalp of a top-tier nation, more than ever before they themselves are firmly in the sights of developing rugby nations from across the globe.

It is increasingly difficult to see how Scotland will ever be able to muster the necessary talent to even compete for an RBS Six Nations crown, let alone find success against their rivals in the South. 

England: The Once And Future Kings?

Of the four home nations, England is surely the most likely to once again return glory and respectability to rugby in the British Isles.  Even former All Black Coach Graham Henry believes England have the potential to be the finest rugby nation on planet earth. 

He said this in a 2012 interview with the BBC:

A country with over a million players should be the best team in the world and England's potential in the backs is as good as it has ever been.

But how frustrated those players must get in a white shirt.

England and the English clubs play a game based on fear and a generation of promising backs are dying on their feet. That has to change.

Despite a well-acknowledged superiority in forward play, England continually struggle to compete against southern hemisphere nations whose back-lines routinely get the better of their English counterparts.

Of the 15 men that were eventually selected to take the field for the final Lions match this summer, not a single English back was among them. Given the disparity in the number of players in each of the home nations, this is surely a troubling sign.

Of the top 20 backs in the home nations, how many Englishman would win a place if were you the selector?

England have been ranked as the No. 1 team on the planet as recently as 2004, but their record against the southern hemisphere powers remains only slightly better than their fellows among the home nations.

England have seven victories against the All Blacks in 35 encounters, including a famous home win in the Autumn of 2012.

However, even a nation as powerful as England still has a less than 40 percent all-time winning percentage against South Africa and Australia.

England have not beaten South Africa since November of 2006.

And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place:

The home nations are fond of their spiritual songs, so we've offered one of our own atop these concluding thoughts.

In the increasingly competitive world of international rugby, the home nations must seem like friendlier targets to the likes of France, Argentina, Samoa and even Tonga, let alone their traditional Southern rivals from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Given the financial and political troubles that continue to plague rugby union across the British Isles, one wonders if it won't be long before we begin to see some of the home nations fall permanently outside the world's Top 10.

So for those who continue to revel in the admittedly thrilling and historic Lions win of 2013, remember this: unless something is done to reverse the overall trends that have governed rugby in the home nations in recent times, it might not be long until the only hope of a British or Irish win in the southern hemisphere rests with a Lions tour.

Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report.

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