Wednesday 13 December 2017

Gatland must start with blank sheet to find freshest Lions

Tommy Bowe and Paul O'Connell could be motoring nicely when coach looks for tourists without baggage, writes Brendan Fanning

In 1993, the Five Nations Championship finished in Lansdowne Road with a rousing victory for the home team over England. You'll have seen the footage many times: Mick Galwey trundling over in the Havelock Square corner to round off a 17-3 win that sickened our visitors.

With that fresh in their minds, the Lions selectors sat down and started horse trading over the runners and riders. By the time they had got up from the table, Galwey had secured a ticket on the plane to New Zealand. He didn't have a great tour. Or rather, he didn't make the kind of impression hoped for.He was stellar, however, compared to some of his Celtic cousins. By a distance the biggest selection mistake of that episode was in bringing Scotland tighthead Peter Wright. His compatriot Paul Burnell would struggle as well, so much so that loosehead Jason Leonard had to be shifted across in the Test series.

The error was linked to that last championship game. Jeff Probyn was widely recognised at the time as the most technically efficient tighthead on the circuit, a nightmare to scrummage against. But he had been a part of that England side hurried out the gate in Dublin, and paid a price that would cost the Lions as much as him. Lesson one in gathering the pride of Lions: don't select on the last championship game.

Ten years earlier, the tourists had endured one of the most fractious trips ever when they sloshed through the wind and rain, from north island to south and back up again, with Ciarán Fitzgerald as their leader. Ireland's captain was a mentally strong and nuggety rugby player with a serious technical flaw in his game – he couldn't throw the ball accurately.

Throughout the series he was selected ahead of Scotland's Colin Deans, while England's Peter Wheeler had been left at home. The rationale for giving Fitzgerald the leadership – it was a harrowing experience which he bore with typical stoicism – was that Ireland had been the dominant team among the home nations. England, for example, hadn't won a Five Nations game. The Scots had just the one victory. So give it to the leader of the best of the rest. Lesson number two in gathering the pride: don't pick your captain on the basis of points won.

In 2001, the only other year when the Lions toured Australia as opposed to stopping off on the way to or from New Zealand, the abiding memory is of the rolls of sticking plaster needed to hold the players together in the last week. Unlike 1983, when England were a bit of a mess, in 2001 they were already building towards the World Cup and were streets ahead of the Celts.

So in an effort to get everyone on the same page as them, the training was long and brutal. It didn't work. Lesson number three: flogging dead horses doesn't win races.

The great achievement of the Lions is that they are still in business. If it weren't for the commercial juggernaut that drives the operation they wouldn't have survived into the professional era. Consider the crazy scenario: four teams compressed into one, at the end of a season and with precious little time to prepare, and then sent off to one of the three strongest rugby nations on the planet where the locals are fit and focused and organised.

For all of these reasons the Lions are on a loser before they step on the plane, and to turn that around into a winning trip they have to produce something extraordinary. It would help if Warren Gatland got things right before they left.

His first job is to so start with a blank page, and select his squad only when it needs to be selected. And his second is to recognise that fatigue is the biggest load any Lion has to carry. So, ironically, the player who stars in the November series and peaks again in the Six Nations and then puts in a storming finish to European or domestic business may not be the optimum choice.

This is good news for those on the injured list. We're afraid to mention Paul O'Connell in conjunction with any tour unless it is a pilgrimage to Lourdes where he might strike it lucky and banish his bad luck. However, if he can get fit and stay fit until the end of the season then he would be almost unique in Lions history: a fresh tourist.

Similarly, Dan Lydiate, last season's player of the Six Nations, who made his return to action this weekend having been out since October, could be an asset instead of a liability. And Ireland's Tommy Bowe might yet squeeze in. Ulster hope to have him back for the last few rounds of the Pro12, and if they progress in Europe then he could be approaching the tour in the way he would arrive for a November series. Motoring nicely.

That would open up a whole new vista for Gatland, who will be under enough pressure at it is. He doesn't need to jump the gun and blow himself out of the water.

Irish Independent

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