Monday 24 July 2017

All still to play for in hunt for Lions spots

Willie John McBride, pictured during the Lions’ first Test against New Zealand in 1971, knows the competition to make the team – the biggest moment of a player’s career.
Willie John McBride, pictured during the Lions’ first Test against New Zealand in 1971, knows the competition to make the team – the biggest moment of a player’s career.

"It's amazing when you put on that shirt. I remember walking down the tunnel, you get bigger and bigger and you feel stronger and stronger. This is the biggest moment of your rugby life."

- Willie John McBride

Warren Gatland is on the look out for the right type of characters. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Warren Gatland is on the look out for the right type of characters. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

(Five-time Lions tourist), 2016

The Lions machine roars into its 37th tour next summer, and while it is not without its flaws, it remains a thrilling spectacle that provides a unique kind of entertainment.

Ireland's two pulsating games against the All Blacks in November gave a taste of what is to come in New Zealand in June, but the Six Nations is where players will really be judged.

Experience, however, will count for a lot when Warren Gatland and his brains-trust eventually settle on their 37-man squad. The Lions head coach has been down this road before in 2013 and he too will be better for the experience.

Northern hemisphere rugby is in a good place, which is a far cry from the doom and gloom that was rampant after last year's World Cup.

Expires

The current agreement between the Lions and Sanzar, the organisation representing the three major southern-hemisphere unions, expires after the tour to New Zealand, and changes around the scheduling are expected to follow.

Some would argue that the way the game has gone since professionalism took a hold has diluted what it means to play for the Lions, especially compared to how Willie John McBride describes the honour, but ask any player from Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales, and they would jump at the chance to wear that famous red jersey.

There have been plenty of times down through the years that the value of a Lions tour has been called into question, but the level of interest that it attracts every four years speaks volumes.

Next summer's tour will be Rob Howley's fourth, either as a player or a coach, the former Wales scrum-half is in no doubt about its importance nowadays.

"As a player, it's all about the here and now. We don't quite see the big picture in terms of the legacy of the Lions and what the Lions bring to world rugby," Howley explains.

"I was certainly made aware of the Lions legacy back in 2009 going into the final Test. It was like a war zone in our changing-room after that second Test. It was absolute carnage.

"The legacy then, going into the third Test, the question was, 'Is there a place in world rugby for the Lions?' And I thought that was answered in that third Test."

The Lions lost that series 2-1 in South Africa but made amends four years later in Australia.

Yet the task that awaits them in New Zealand is an altogether tougher one.

Gatland has made it abundantly clear that he will pick the right characters for his squad, not just the best players. The Kiwi had hoped to have Joe Schmidt and Gregor Townsend as part of his coaching ticket but their own national tours mean that their focus lies elsewhere.

Gatland tells a story about that brutal tour to South Africa in 2009 and it is one that highlights his no-nonsense approach.

"I wasn't in charge in 2009 but there was a very well-recognised player who wasn't involved in the last Test and went out on the Wednesday night, had too much to drink and didn't turn up for training on the Thursday," recalls Gatland, who was part of Ian McGeechan's backroom team on that tour.

"Now if I had been in charge in 2009, I would have put him on a plane and sent him home and said, 'Explain to your family and the rest of the rugby world why you weren't prepared to come to training on the last week of the Lions tour, which was pretty important'. I think they need to hear those sort of stories and know how important that is."

Discussions have already begun between Gatland and his assistants Howley, Andy Farrell and Steve Borthwick. There is a stark realisation that a lot is still to happen between now and June but behind the scenes, questions are already being asked about the ability of certain players to be considered as 'good tourists'.

"You want good people and good characters in the Lions," Gatland insists. "We had a coaches' meeting and discussed what players impressed us in November but one of the things I raised is, it's not just thinking about players, it's thinking about the right sort of people on Lions - the right sort of characters.

"People that are going to fight for their positions . . . How do they handle disappointment?

"You're always going to get one or two disgruntled players, people that feel like they haven't had the opportunity.

"I saw that in 2013. There was one player who was pretty disappointed about not being selected in the first Test and then he threw his toys out of the cot. But he was able to regather himself.

"There were a couple of players on that tour that had really, really good Six Nations campaigns and then when they turned up in Australia; to me it seemed that they were quite happy to be part of the squad and weren't fighting for the No 1 position."

As a player, Borthwick was never considered good enough for the Lions and thus one lifelong goal was never achieved. But a mere five years after he entered the coaching world, he will finally get the chance to tour with the Lions.

"I have never been on a Lions tour but you know the Lions is special. As a player, everyone is desperate to be picked for the Lions," England's forwards coach says. "I was at an event and was listening to some of the great Lions talk about their experiences, some of them going back a long time and multiple tours.

"The room was deathly quiet when these people were speaking and the stories, the friendships, the bonds, the experiences, the challenges - incredible. You know it's special. This is incredible.

"As a player, you set goals. You want to play for your country but the Lions is the ultimate achievement for any player in the home nations."

The talk of potential Lions tourists is already very much under way and while the players themselves will insist that they are not thinking about June, rest assured that it is in the back of their mind every time they take to the pitch.

Because, as Willie John McBride put it, for most players, playing for the Lions will be the biggest moment of their career.

Irish Independent

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