British Lions must hope Home Unions will sacrifice for the greater good

Lions: Johnson & Gibbs

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

7 thoughts on “British Lions must hope Home Unions will sacrifice for the greater good

  1. Well after the lows of 2005, I thought I would never ever again muster any enthusiasm for the Lions, but it only takes one look at a picture like that above to bring back memories of 1997 and of the Living with Lions documentary!

    It’s always hard to name a side two years out as you say Stuart, but especially so when Ireland (probably the most consistent of the 4 nations over the last 3 years) barely showed up at all at the RWC. Only time will tell which of the Irish team come back to something like their best, let alone whether or not that will be good enough for them to make the Lions test team.

    Some people are proclaiming the death of the 4-year cycle, but I disagree – you still need to arrive at the RWC as the best prepared team – NZ just lost out through not being tested early on and getting edged out of a narrow game. Enjoyable though England’s run was, you wouldn’t want to use it as a blueprint for future World Cups would you?!

    I think we will see some experimental, cagey teams in the next two 6N tournaments anyway – not good for The Lions, but largely unavoidable. Wales (and possibly still England) will have a new coach, Ireland are trying to salvage a team from the wreckage, and only Scotland look likely to show some post-RWC continuity.

  2. A happy and successful tour by the Lions depends largely on the manager and coach who pick the players and determine the style of tour both on and off the pitch. By a distance, the best man to fill the difficult job of coach is Ian McGeechan, and Gerald Davies’s critical first task is to persuade ‘Geech’ to take the job and Wasps to release him. Feared by the Boks, the Scotsman will excite the players and have them looking forward to the tour.

    The only innovation worth retaining from the unhappy, over-blown, under performing, Woodward tour is the Lions v Argentina preparatory international.

  3. I think the idea that the home nations select their teams for the 2 years preceding each Lions tour is completely unrealistic. International rugby is also a big marketing brand, and each country focuses on the 4-year cycle to play with iterations and build up experience ready for the next World Cup.

    To play and tinker with that would mean submitting to another force, and we have enough conflict already between the clubs and the nations. How would you, in a position as England manager, like to be told that you have to select a squad based on who is going to be good in a year’s time, or 2 year’s time, rather than focus on building up the experience of the youth, and developing a squad with greater longevity in mind.

    Although playing for the Lions is the greatest honour a home-nation player can aspire to, it is still largely a ceremonial tour rather than a solid business akin to the professional era. It does, as you note, bridge the gap between the amateur and professional eras, but still does not command enough authority as a legitimate business venture to influence the selection of international teams.

    The same reasons mean that the tour will unfortunately struggle to find any more time in an already-hectic rugby calendar. Let’s hope that this is enough to bring another victory in South Africa 2009.

    ….and after alllll, you’re my Wonderwall. I said maybe….

  4. It’s been confirmed that the Argentina match will not be repeated as it was regarded as too tough a match too soon and that, because it didn’t exactly bring confidence, it actually had a detrimental effect on the whole tour.

  5. Justin, the natural conclusion to what you’re saying is that there is no place in the modern rugby calendar for the Lions. There appears to be a strong appetite for the Lions to continue and I think there would be outcry among the rugby public if it was binned.
    Players often say they regard themselves as being in the entertainment industry and the fans want strong, successful Lions teams – it’s a huge draw.

    I’m just concerned that it might become a bit half-arsed and I think it’s up to the individual nations to take responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t. I know it’s a big ask but from the national coaches’ points of view, their players will only benefit from a positive experience with the Lions.

  6. Not at all Mr Peel. I agree the Lions is an awesome concept, and has adapted to the professional era, still being held in the highest regard by players and fans alike. I disagree, however, with your hope that more time could be allocated to the tour – with player rest and burnout a major factor, and the length of the domestic season, I don’t feel there is enough time in the year to accomodate an extension of the tour.

    Secondly, I disagree with the concept of international coaches pandering to the wishes of the Lions committee, selecting their teams based on the wishes and intentions of others.

    Everything else is spot on. You’re brilliant. Well done.

  7. There is no way what you’re suggesting will ever be agreed to, attractive as it may sound. You simply cannot ask coaches, selectors and fans to base any of their judgements on anything but immediate self-interest, regardless of professional/amateur divides.

    And hold on a minute, look at the record… Since the advent of the professional era the Lions turned over the reigning World Champs in 97 as you describe.

    They could and should have done the same in Australia four years later, a lack of respect for the coach and one interception notwithstanding.

    They then got spanked by a phenomenal team at the peak of its powers, with a genius at 10 hitting stratospheric heights of play against a side drained by injuries before and during the tour. Bear in mind that the overall Lions statistics don’t generally make great reading in Test matches from the outset.

    You’re right, it is unrealistic as Test rugby and virtually pressure-free, but didn’t the Baa-Baas show last weekend that you actually don’t need an extended period of time together to be succesful given the right combination of talent? Chinawhites also seem to have the evidence that they enjoyed themselves doing it.

    I don’t think any of the rugby playing world will ever lose their affection for the Lions, including the players. It’s possible that the 2009 tour may have important repurcussions for the future, but as it stands their is a lot more the brand can offer. Long may it continue.

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