The instalment of Gerald Davies as Manager of the British and Irish Lions for the tour to South Africa in 2009 has brought this fantastic rugby institution back into the spotlight. Davies is synonymous with the golden era of the Lions in the early 1970s and his is a welcome appointment.
In light of this, the fact that we are approximately midway between tours, and that after the recent World Cup we have had a good chance to examine the contenders, it seemed an appropriate time to speculate who is currently in pole position to be pulling on the famous red shirt. I am not talking about an attempt to second guess who could be in the picture in 2009, but a team to play in a hypothetical test match next weekend.
The criteria was to be that players must be currently available to play international rugby, thus ruling out the likes of Martyn Williams and Mike Catt who have retired from the international game. I started doing this about a week ago. I have given up.
I am not an enormous fan of hypothetical 15s, but 20 months out, it would be interesting and instructive to identify those positions in which we possess talent and strength in depth and those in which the cupboard is rather more bare. For example, we have many good wingers and a lack of full backs; a decent array of scrum halves and a paucity at inside centre; several world class second rows and almost no hookers; and, most bizarrely, an abundance of blind side flankers and a serious shortage of world class open sides.
But at the present time, this is futile to a spectacular extent. International rugby has come to the end of its cycle and teams are looking to regroup and rebuild. Ireland and Wales had disastrous World Cups, Scotland met expectations which, let’s be honest, were really not very high. And England fought their way through to the final through blood and guts rather than through individually talented players. Who knows who will line up for the home nations in the 6 Nations in the new year, let alone who will make a mark and be there for the foreseeable future. If the past few years are anything to go by, the post-World Cup months of international rugby could be fairly forgettable. They shouldn’t be with the calibre of players coming through, but teams are ‘rebuilding’ (God help us).
And this is the problem which the Lions are coming up against – where do they fit into the modern rugby calendar? In England, the clubs and the RFU appear to have put away their broadswords for now and the recent IRB Forum has achieved a degree of consensus on the structure of global rugby over the coming decade but the Lions have been rather shoehorned in. The main issue is that the Lions may find themselves touring at times when players are crying out for a rest and also at a time when international teams have been in limbo. Certainly the two Six Nations championships following the 2003 World Cup lacked intensity and this was reflected in the unceremonious thumping the Lions received from the All Blacks. The concern therefore is that the Lions tour party will be populated by players who are either undercooked for the unique rigours of a Lions series, or are completely knackered.
The pride and adrenalin created by being part of a Lions tour should address these issues and the mark of a great, as opposed to good, player from these islands is often his performance in the red shirt. From Willie John Mcbride and Gareth Edwards, through to Jeremy Guscott, Martin Johnson and Brian O’Driscoll, what has defined the very finest players has been their Lions tours. But the most successful Lions teams have often forged their victories from an indomitable team spirit, founded upon the camaraderie which being on a long rugby tour can generate.
In 1997, the Lions beat the World Champions, South Africa, who were a better side in many departments but found themselves playing a team who would not countenance the idea of losing. Many of the players on that tour, including Johnson, name that trip as their best experience in rugby because of how enjoyable it was off the pitch as well as on. That formed the basis of their victory. England discovered something similar in the recent World Cup – their backs were to the wall but they found a little bit extra forged out of team spirit and the desire to do well for each other.
With the competing demands of club and international rugby, the Lions tour has been significantly abridged to an extent that one must fear that such team spirit is unlikely to emerge. In such a short space of time it is hard for players of any calibre to click and really establish understandings (notwithstanding Barbarians fixtures which are played under no pressure). Lawrence Dallaglio said in his autobiography that players like to be told what to do but it is an almost impossible task for the coaches to send out all the necessary messages in digestible form and for them to be translated to the letter on the pitch. In the past the Lions have been able to fall back on the absolute refusal to lose but in a 5 week tour, with so much focus on rugby and little else, will the necessary personal bonds be established between players?
It was seen in 2005 how wrong a tour can go in these conditions and the fear is that in the professional era, a relatively scratch team will struggle to compete against an established international 15, especially one wearing the crown of World Champions. There has been talk of moving Lions tours forward a year to the end of World Cup season but I fail to see how that would address the issue as that is the exact time when players most need to recharge.
The way for this to be overcome is for the Lions’ component nations to put aside self-interest in the months leading up to the tour. The concept of ‘building a squad’ and trying to time their run at the World Cup from 3 years out must be forgotten. Instead they must all commit to playing their absolute strongest teams in the preceding 6 Nations to ensure that the players are fully prepared for the challenge that lies ahead. Then moves must be made to allow the players the time to prepare for the tour as a squad. While international teams aim to peak every four years, the players aim to peak twice, targeting the World Cup and the Lions tour. Everything possible must be done to ensure that they are mentally and physically ready for the challenge.
Finally the tour must be allocated a long enough time frame for the necessary camaraderie, trust and understanding among a group of highly competitive individuals to develop. The Lions is one of the most marketable brands in world rugby and is one of the great remaining ties between the professional and amateur eras. They must be accorded sufficient time, resources and respect to make sure that success on the field follows. The entire preceding season should be built around the Lions tour.
By Stuart Peel