Friday 20 October 2017

Take Australia off tour roster – Austin Healey

Austin Healey in action for the Lions in 2001
Austin Healey in action for the Lions in 2001
Austin Healey in Dublin yesterday at the announcement of the Setanta Sports link-up with BT Sport
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THEIR every appearance is carefully stage managed, with players even acting as walking billboards despite struggling to stay atop surfboards.

Players have been called up by dint of being on holidays locally, with retired Wales international Shane Williams and Ireland prop Tom Court both becoming Lions of convenience.

Sky Sports keep telling us the tour is the highest accolade, but every time they cut to an ad break we are treated to the image of coach Warren Gatland dressed as an admiral and trotting out phrases like "now the tour begins".

But perhaps the poorest indictment of this year's Lions tour has been the quality of the warm-up matches and the lack of intensity that the tourists have gone through en route to the Test series which, thankfully, delivered excitement at last on Saturday.

Austin Healey summed up the mood of many yesterday when he expressed his disillusionment with elements of the 2013 Lions, with the man who wore the famous red jersey in 1997 and 2001 questioning whether the brand now superseded the team.

With thousands of travelling fans, big sponsorships, full houses and merchandise flying off the shelves, the touring party are seen as a cash-cow for the home unions and their 12-yearly hosts, but the former England scrum-half says they have taken it too far.

"The Lions shouldn't be a commercial brand entity. It is, but it shouldn't be –it's a marketer's dream," he said.

"It should be the pinnacle of rugby and if it is then it needs to be the best thing you have ever dreamed of as a player and a supporter to go and watch. Supporters aren't stupid. They will realise that if they are there purely for money then they won't go. It's lost a little bit of its lustre."

According to Healey, a major part of the problem has been the venue and he believes that Australia should be taken off the list of core host nations that receive the Lions every 12 years.

"I'm not sure whether Australia will see another full Lions tour again. I think this will be their last tour," he said. "I think it would be better for the whole ethos of the Lions that, if it is to be the pinnacle of rugby, then that is grassroots, camaraderie and spreading the word while you're over there.

"It's not high-level, highly-paid players going over there to play just three games in a country where they have been many times before.

"I would like to see the Lions go down the Pacific Rim and play Canada, the USA, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, the Pacific Islands and then maybe go to Australia and give them one Test match. If they are going to disrespect our traditions now then that's it, they don't get another tour.

"I don't know if Australia are taking the tour as seriously as previously. There are less players playing in the midweek games. They have had no physical games at all on this tour. There hasn't been, like in 2001, massive brawls against the Waratahs or Queensland.

"There hasn't been the 'honey traps' sent round the hotels, the complete and utter rubbish and lies written in the press about players hating each other and trying to drive a wedge between the squad.

"Are they playing a very clever game and not letting us prepare and develop a siege mentality, or do they not really see the Lions as a big game anymore? It's a question that we will only know at the end of the tour."

The decision to call up Williams and Court has been criticised in some quarters, but, as Healy recalled, it happened in his time. "It happened 12 years ago to Andy Nicol, who got called up on the Friday (before the third Test)," he said.

"The day before he was walking up the Sydney Bridge and I don't think he had done the best preparation in terms of playing when he sat on the bench. He knew none of the calls and he had been there 10 days. They tried to calculate how much sleep he had had and I don't think it was a very high number.

"The world is a smaller place and I wonder why Andrew Trimble or Ugo Monye weren't taken down there or one of the players who had played in the Six Nations and played pretty well."

Healey can empathise with the so-called dirt-trackers, those players who take to the field this morning against the Melbourne Rebels and might not see the light of day again despite there being 11 days remaining on tour.

CONTROVERSIAL

Having played in the Test series win over South Africa in 1997, the controversial England star fell out of favour with Graham Henry four years later and found himself on the midweek team, famously falling out with Justin Harrison, who would come back to haunt the Lions in the final Test.

"It is very similar to 2001, but the problem in 2001 was that Graham Henry didn't have the respect of the players, especially the midweek players," he said.

"Most of those players went off tour two and a half, three weeks into the tour, some of them weren't even turning up for training. Some had decided to fake an injury and go on a 'Gullivers' (travel company) trip with the supporters, but I think Warren Gatland and the coaching staff have retained a better environment and some of the guys that are playing will get an opportunity in the third Test."

Despite his complaints about the tour, the echoes of 2001 when the Lions won the first Test but lost the series and the arm injury to Paul O'Connell that rules him out, Healey reckons that the tourists can win a first series since '97.

"This time around, I can't see where (the spark) is going to come from for Australia, I don't know where that spark will be," he said.

"Historically, and I like patterns really, but the last time the Lions had a kicking full-back we won the series. You take (Leigh) Halfpenny and put him in the Australian side, I think they win the series."

Austin Healey was speaking at the Setanta Sports announcement that they will add the new BT Sport channel and ESPN to their package from August 1.

Irish Independent

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