Since yesterday morning, when rumours began emanating from Australia that Michael Foley was set to field an understrength Western Force side for their game against the Lions tomorrow, social media has been rife with pundits, ex-players and fans alike damning him for his disrespect for the institution of the Lions.
Foley’s argument goes that he has an important Australian derby in the Super XV on Sunday, and thus needs some or all of his players fit and fresh for that. However, his decision to include seven players uncapped even at Super Rugby level and a bench made up mostly of players drafted from Sydney club rugby has been met with condemnation in the rugby world.
“It was about whether it was reasonable to have blokes back up four days later,” Foley told The Herald Sun. “The way we see it we have a Test match tomorrow night and depending on what the ARU decides, we may have another Test match on Sunday. Certainly the intensity with which the Waratahs are playing, that’s what we expect. So asking players to do that twice is unreasonable.
“Ideally you would like a week between games, just to be able to sit down and pick a team and then reassess and pick another team. What we have had to do is juggle our squad across two games, and look to pick a number of senior, experienced internationals against the Lions. What we said was realistically we weren’t able to meet the challenge and do it justice by trying to pick the same 22 guys twice.”
When asked why the Lions weren’t made a priority over a largely irrelevant clash with the Waratahs, Foley said: “The pressure is to deliver every game you play as a team. When you suggest not putting every effort into the first game I think that is pretty insulting to the guys taking the field. We think this is the best team for this game in light of the fixture list we have been given.”
Foley, who is perhaps looking to get one over his old franchise, said he believed he’d paid respect to the Lions with the selection of six players with Test experience.
“Looking at Matt Hodgson, our captain, playing against the Lions tells you a fair bit about what we think. Richard Brown – our international No.8, Toby Lynn – our most experienced lock and lineout caller, Salesi Ma’afu – our international tighthead. We’ve loaded the side up, but at the same time we have tried to keep combinations together for the Waratahs, so the performance in both games is coherent.”
Whatever Foley says, the fact of the matter is that this is likely to be another game in which the Lions aren’t really tested. And he believes that the scheduling needs to be looked at, calling into question the relevance of the Barbarians game at the weekend – a fixture that has already been written off by some as more of a commercial venture than a viable rugby match.
On the scheduling of the tour, Foley said, “There are some challenges. Probably the most important thing is the scheduling. Obviously there was a Barbarians game on the weekend, that could have been a Force game,” Foley said. “It is doable. There is a big push in terms of getting more games. That obviously creates stress on the players, and player welfare is a significant factor when you make these decisions.”
While the game against the Baa Baas did turn out to be a bit of a farce in terms of preparing the Lions, it is not the only factor at work here. Pundits and fans alike in the Southern Hemisphere are united in the view that Super Rugby has become too convoluted, with the addition of three franchises since 2005. It has created a more confusing and much busier schedule. If there were still only 12 teams in Super Rugby, chances are the Force would not have had to play the Waratahs this weekend and they could have fielded a full strength team against the Lions.
It will be interesting to see as the tour goes on if franchises pick the best players available to them, or if they follow the route of Foley in resting players for the Lions games. After all, if the team bottom of the Aussie log puts more priority on Super Rugby, how are teams competing for the play-offs likely to feel? Will they really risk their first team regulars in a one-off tour match? If they choose not to, there is a very real danger that the Lions will arrive at the first test somewhat undercooked.
The future of Lions tours is up for review after the 2017 trip to New Zealand, and if they continue to fail to get viable warm-up games then something will surely need to be changed. Trips to Argentina, the USA, the Pacific Islands etc. could become a real possibility, as they would provide much better preparation (purely in rugby terms) for the Lions. After all, what are they really going to gain from putting 50 points on a Western Force ‘B’ team?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43