Dr Harris analyses professionalism and amateurism in British Lions rugby history

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 10:29:00 BST

When rugby union became an openly professional sport in the mid-1990s, it appeared that one of the institutions most under threat was the British Lions.

The British and Irish Lions play their first match of the 2017 tour this weekend in what is arguably the toughest assignment in international rugby.

In a paper published in Sport in History titled ‘The reinvention of the British Lions’, Glasgow Caledonian University’s (GCU’s) Dr John Harris argues that the team is undoubtedly still an important part of international rugby. 

Dr Harris’ paper looks at how the team has been shaped by the competing ideologies of amateurism and professionalism over the past fifty years, based on the autobiographies of working-class amateurs.

He said: “I think the success of the great Lions teams of the 1970s was shaped by a professional approach and many of the problems of the 2005 tour were related to the failure to retain key aspects of the amateur era. We can learn a great deal about broader organisational change and performance management cultures by looking at sport.  In so many ways the Lions should not succeed, but bringing together players from such different backgrounds and forming a cohesive unit within a very short space of time evidences the importance of resilience, trust and teamwork.”  

The British and Irish Lions touring team comes together every four years to take on one of the three leading southern hemisphere rugby nations in a three-match Test series. The first tour of the professional era in 1997 was celebrated for the ways in which important professional concepts were introduced, yet the touring party retained valued elements of the amateur ethos. The next two tours were not as successful, and led to questions about the very role of the Lions in the professional game.

The 2009 tour saw a return to some of the values shaped during the age of amateurism and four years later the Lions achieved their first Test series win since 1997.

Dr Harris is Associate Dean Research in GCU’s Glasgow School for Business and Society, and has research interests in rugby and the ways in which sport can contribute to inclusive societies.

rugbysportresearchJohn Harris