The winner is the loser who evaluates defeat properly
PUBLISHED: 11:17 07 July 2017
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Ahead of the Lions rugby game, our Editor at Large considers patience, dreaming and winning the bigger fight - Brexit
Forgive me if this is already out of date. I know some of you rush to the newsagent first thing Friday morning, so excited are you to get your hands on the one newspaper prepared to call out Brexit for what it is – an unmitigated disaster for the people who voted for it, who now need to be persuaded to change their minds. The more patient among you prefer the subscription plop on the doormat that signals a leisurely weekend read of The New European’s unique mix of news, views, campaigns and culture that has seen us gather up a mantelpiece full of awards in our short life.
If you are in the former group, and you share my passion for great sporting events, then you will also be sharing my excitement that within 24 hours we will know whether the British and Irish Lions have managed to pull off what would surely rank as one of the greatest triumphs in their history, a series win on New Zealand soil.
For the latter group, it might well be that your postman drops off your New European even as the Lions are engaged in battle, kick off 8.35am UK time, in the third decisive Test against the mighty All Blacks. In which case, you have permission to wait until the match is over before turning attention to our latest exposés of Brexit calamities and our latest efforts to get our politicians to wake up to the need to change course or preside over national decline of a lasting nature for which history will rightly condemn them as destructive failures.
Head over heart, if I had to bet my life on it, I would tip the All Blacks to win. It is possible to make the case not only that they are the greatest rugby team on the planet, but the greatest sports team full stop. But this is the beauty of sport, and the reason why I feel so sorry for those who just don’t get it; don’t understand why more than 20,000 Brits and Irish people have made that long and expensive journey to the other side of the world, or even why millions more will drop everything else – even reading The New European, let me tell you – to witness what they hope will be history in the making. Because sometimes, in the head-heart battle, heart can win. It won last Saturday, 24-21, and if it wins once, it can win again.
Head tells me that a New Zealand side which had not, until last Saturday’s second Test defeat, lost a single home Test match since 2009, will not lose two in a row. It tells me that the indiscipline which saw their first ever sending off on home soil – another incredible record when you think how brutal the modern game is – will be fixed. It tells me that they are going to embody the wonderful sentiment, expressed by Irish-born Kenyan athletics coach Colm O’Connell in my book, Winners And How They Succeed, that “the winner is the loser who evaluates defeat properly”. In other words, they will have honestly assessed what went wrong, and put it right.
My own head also recalls the experience of having been with the Lions on their last trip to New Zealand twelve years ago, when coach Sir Clive Woodward tempted me to see whether experience in comms and strategy on the political battlefield could be translated to the sporting arena. Fair to say that both on and off the field the tour did not go as well as this one, which suggests the superficial answer is no. But I was happy enough, having for years been a lightning conductor for Tony Blair, to operate as one for our losing coaches and players. As Welsh fly-half Stephen Jones announced one night to a post-defeat bar packed with Lions fans – “come and say Hi to Alastair, he’s here to take the blame for all those kicks and tackles we missed!” I love that man.
Though we lost all the Tests, and I got a lot of flak, as a sports fanatic, I loved seeing the insides of an elite sports organisation, and I forged a real friendship not just with Clive Woodward, but several of the players. One of them, England World Cup winner Richard Hill, is now manager of the England team, and a while back asked me to meet up with rising star Maro Itoje, for a chat about dealing with pressure. He is a very impressive young man – smart on politics too – and I was thrilled to see him get the Man of the Match award last weekend, especially as he had been omitted from the starting line up in the first Test.
But the other reason I loved that tour in 2005 is because it allowed me to witness the intensity of the relationship between the people of New Zealand and their favourite sport. I have never experienced anything quite like it. People tell me that India and cricket, Canada and ice hockey, are similar, but I know plenty of Indians who would not cross the road to watch a Test match, and plenty of Canadians who couldn’t give a puck about men on skates.
In New Zealand, you feel that everyone is obsessed with it. It is more than media hype, though across television, radio, press and social media the coverage is monumental. Go for a hair cut, and it is all the barber wants to talk about it. Get in a taxi, and it’s the same. Last week in Australia, several Kiwis came to the event I was doing, mainly women, all hyped up about the Test, all knowledgeable about who was playing, their life stories, their strengths and weaknesses. If I went to New Zealand today, one of them told me, I would not be “the Blair spin doctor guy”, but “the guy who did the Lions and lost”.
There is no doubt Britain is right up there among the most fanatical sports nations on the planet. Look at how many top football clubs we have in London, say, compared with the single PSG in Paris. Some of our lower league football and rugby teams get crowds that many top flight clubs in other countries would die for. We have the richest football league in the world, the greatest tennis tournament, currently under way, soon to be followed by the greatest golf tournament. We are the dominant force in cycling, and hopefully Team Sky are on the road to another win right now in the Tour de France. We have a boxing heavyweight world champion. We are up there in equestrian and motor sports, rowing, triathlon, I could go on and on. Some weekends, there will be upwards of a dozen major events attracting crowds into the 40,000 plus bracket. We have already sold more tickets for this month’s Para Athletics world championships than any previous games in history, just as London 2012 broke every record you can think of in terms of public participation. (NB back on TNE message – Not that we would ever have won the right to host it had we showed the face to the world then that Brexit Britain is showing now.)
But imagine taking all that passion for all those sports, and focusing it on one sport, and one team. That is what New Zealand feels like right now, and that represents one enormous pressure on both sides. How they deal with it will part explain how things pan out in Eden Park, Auckland, just as your paper is about to land on your doormat.
The last time the All Blacks lost at Eden Park, July 3, 1994, Tony Blair had still not been elected leader of the Labour Party. That is a long winning streak, and underlines just how hard it will be for the Lions. As for the intensity with which the New Zealand people and media want to make sure it does not happen, I close with the story of my own attempts to get the papers delivered to my hotel room in Christchurch in the run up the first Test 12 years ago. We lost 21-3, and it became best remembered perhaps for the infamous ‘spear tackle’ on Brian O’Driscoll, and my role became controversial on account of our determined efforts to get the authorities to take action against the two All Blacks who had driven our captain into the ground and out of the series.
In the days ahead of the match, I had asked several times if I could have the newspapers delivered to my room, and several times I was told yes, tomorrow, no problem. They finally appeared on the Sunday morning after that first Test defeat. Top of a huge pile was the Sunday Star Times, a big ‘Take That’ headline across the front page above a picture of jubilant All Blacks. And there, alongside it, a headline which the head concierge had made sure I saw … ‘Try Spinning This, Alastair.’
“So how’s Tony Blair’s former spin doctor and now Lions PR man, Alastair Campbell, going to spin this one, eh?” wrote a man called Michael Laws. “Some advice, old chap: just tell the truth – ‘we were crap’.”
As the salt stung into the wounds, it was impossible not to admire them. For something to matter so much to so many, it has to be cultural, and it is. That’s why if the Lions have won by the time you read this, Team of the Year on BBC Sports Personality of the Year is a done deal. And if they haven’t, at least they gave us something to dream about for a few days, and now we can get back to the bigger fight, stopping Brexit.
Sometimes, both head and heart are on the right side. And remember, the winner is the loser who evaluates defeat properly.