Tuesday 21 November 2017

'Guys are used to being starters on their national teams. Then they go to a Lions squad and think, Jesus am I number 34 or 35?'

A schizophrenic Six Nations tournament has, perhaps, stiffened the challenge now facing Lions coach Warren Gatland for this summer’s tour of Australia. The New Zealander is due to pick a 37-man squad at the end of next month, but how many Irish will feature as the Lions attempt a series win for the first time since the ’97 tour of South Africa? VINCENT HOGAN spoke to two Irish Lions legends, Fergus Slattery (New Zealand ’71 and South Africa ’74) and Donal Lenihan (New Zealand ’83, Australia ’89 as well as manager in Australia ’01), to get their views on the upcoming series.

What’s your favourite Lions memory?

DONAL LENIHAN: "One of my favourite memories is the day we arrived in Australia in '89. I'd been out in New Zealand as a replacement for the last three or four weeks of '83, when we were rooming three to a room. And New Zealand in '83 was like going through a time tunnel.

"Then the '86 tour to South Africa was cancelled, so New Zealand was my one abiding Lions memory. But arriving in Perth, we drove to a place called the Burswood Hotel, a place forever etched in my mind. It was owned by Alan Bond and was the most palatial hotel I ever saw.

"It was about 23 degrees when we arrived, golf courses to the left and right and you just knew immediately that touring Australia was going to be slightly different to a New Zealand winter. Everybody got on very well on that '89 tour. There were only four of us from Ireland, then we lost Paul Dean in the opening match, so we were down to three.

"But that group was fantastic and remains so to this day."

FERGUS SLATTERY: "Just a general memory of friendship really. Gareth Edwards often tells this story about a trip to Bermuda. The Bermuda Irish were playing Bermuda in a challenge game. Myself, Ken Kennedy and Mike Gibson were invited out and so we got Gareth to play for the lads (locals).

"I decided before the game that I was just going to sit on Edwards. Feck the other 14 guys, I was going to sit on him. And I did. About five minutes into the second-half, there's a scrum awarded to Bermuda and someone's lying injured. Gareth comes over to me and says, 'Look Slats I've come all the way over here, four thousand effing miles. Would you ever f*** off and leave me alone, they're expecting me to do something.'

"So I said, 'Gareth, this scrum, down the narrow side.' I go onto the other side, he puts the ball in, gets it back, runs down the narrow side, inside the winger, outside the full-back, dives over. Great try, everybody's on their feet, what a player. That's friendship. I mean it wasn't Wales against Ireland for a Grand Slam, was it?

"And for me that camaraderie was the best part of playing on the Lions tour. I mean, Mervyn (Davies) had a rough enough ride with his illness, but I would have had loads of engagements with him over the last 20-odd years. Same with Gareth and Benny (Phil Bennett) and JJ Williams.

"I mean I was on two Lions tours and there's about 20 guys from those two tours you'd have a close bond with to this day."

It's important that a tour group bonds in totality – midweek and Test sides – isn't it?

DL: "Lions tours can turn on one or two small little things. In '89, we won all our games coming up to the first Test, then lost to Australia. The following Tuesday, we were playing the ACT Brumbies and were well behind (20 points) at half-time. The tour really was hanging in the balance.

"We ended up scoring 40-odd points to win and my abiding memory is of everybody coming down as we were leaving the pitch and I think that was the moment when the whole tour got back on the rails. Fellas like Wade Dooley and Scott Hastings, who played that day, got on the Test side as a result.

"I remember one of the English tabloids had sent some fella out and, when we lost the opening Test, he just rubbished everything and everyone and that, too, acted as a unifying force.

"But I think it was easier in the amateur days because you were so thrilled to be put into the role of a professional player. Like, I remember Clive Woodward's nose was out of joint because he wasn't involved in '01 and he spent a lot of his time out there telling the English fellas what we were doing wrong.

"He felt the midweek team should be working separately to the Test side, which was the model he used in '05. And, of course, the whole thing crumbled on that tour. I mean Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan went through three weeks where they never spoke to each other because they were in different hotels and at different venues. They didn't even have a team to train against.

"Ian McGeechan was involved in that tour and, to be fair to him, he went back to basics in '09. The chemistry is so important, on and off the field. Because it's a totally different dynamic to anything else the modern player will experience. A lot of them find it very difficult. It's much more condensed than something like a World Cup, way more demanding.

"And remember all these guys are used to being automatic choices on their national teams. You go into a Lions squad and you might be thinking 'Jesus am I number 34 or 35 here?'"

Is it imperative for the future of Lions tours that they win this Test series?

FS: "No I don't think that's the case. Obviously everybody wants success, but I've a different interpretation to most people of what success means. To me, just doing your best is success, no matter what that amounts to. One could argue that the Lions should win down there because the Australians are a bit flaky at the moment.

"But we don't know what the Lions side is going to be and we've had this extraordinary swing in the Six Nations form. I had predicted England would win it but, at the end of the day, they got hammered in the game that mattered."

DL: "I think it's hugely important the Lions win. But Australians by their nature are unbelievably competitive. There's a lot of off-field hassle in their sport at the moment, so I think they'll be on a kind of war-footing for this.

"Don't be fooled by their performances last year, they had so many injuries. And the propaganda war has started already with (Robbie) Deans saying the Lions have the advantages in preparation, which is rubbish. I think Australia will take nothing for granted this time.

"Do the Lions need to win? Yes they do. Like, let's be honest, '05 was a bit of a disaster of a tour. I would say the second Test in '09 was the most physical, intense, incredible game I have ever been at. It could have gone either way, but the Lions lost. Though they won the third Test, that was kind of a dead rubber.

"Bottom line, the series was over after two Tests."

Has Six Nations form muddied the waters for Gatland?

FS: "Well, number one, Wales have got their act together again. They're back to where they were last year. I think if they'd played us again, they'd have beaten us. So I think they're going to bring a lot of very good players and have a big chunk in the squad.

"England are 100pc committed to physicality. They've a plan 'A'. And if physicality doesn't work, they're f***ed. Ireland stood up to them, then got a gap when England had a man sin-binned – that's the moment you've got to run yourselves off the park – and England doubled their score in that 10 minutes! What was that all about?

"So, England are very one-dimensional. If you look at the shape of their backs, they're out there just to bash their way through. They've no agility. I'd say the Lions squad is going to be maybe 40pc Welsh, maybe 25pc English and the balance made up between Ireland and Scotland."

DL: "I'd say it's muddied the waters to a degree for maybe players 26-35. But you have to look at form over a longer period of time. Warren and his people have been around long enough to know that. In the amateur days, there was the odd knee-jerk Lions selection. The squad used always be picked on the Sunday after the last Five Nations games so, obviously, what happened the previous day had a huge bearing on selection.

"I wouldn't say Warren has his Test team nailed down, but I'd say he has maybe his top 26 players in mind. The Test team I think is wide open now. Is that a good or a bad thing? It could be difficult for him that there aren't more stand-out fellas."

If picking the Test team today, how many Irish would get on?

FS: "Two maybe. One would be (Jonny) Sexton and the second one might be (Brian) O'Driscoll. I'm not a huge fan of (Sean) O'Brien. I think he's a wasted talent and I'd be very critical of the management of the Irish team for that. When he gets the ball, he just runs straight at the opposition. They know exactly where he's going and, 90pc of the time, he goes to ground.

"If I was standing opposite him, I'd know where he was going to run. I mean I'd have both (Sam) Warburton and (Chris) Robshaw in the back-row, so it's just a question of who is the third guy? (Toby) Faletau is a candidate. It all depends on what kind of game you want to play."

DL: "Two or three weeks ago, I would have said Cian Healy, Jonny Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll. But, from Healy's point of view, Gethin Jenkins has come right into the picture.

"To me, the only Irishman who's strapped on now is Sexton, if he's 100pc fit. From what I've seen, I think O'Driscoll should be on the Test team. But outside of that, even the number of Irish players who will travel is up for debate. For one or two players, the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup will now shape their destiny.

"One of the most interesting dynamics is in the back-row where you have a number of players who can play in different positions. Warburton can play six and seven, O'Brien can play six, seven and eight. (Justin) Tipuric I think will go, you've Tom Wood from England who's played six and eight. Faletau I think is an outstanding player. Tom Croft wasn't in the equation until recently. I know Warren is very sweet on Dan Lydiate.

"Then you've Jamie Heaslip who is a No 8 and nothing else, so he could lose out after a difficult championship.

"I would say I think Paul O'Connell comes into the equation for a squad place in the second-row. Three or four weeks ago, I'd have said no way. But I think they'll bring five second-rows and, by the time the tour party is named, Paul could have seven games played. And that would be sufficient."

Pick your Test team now?

FS: "I haven't a clue. I mean I would almost pick a Welsh backline with Sexton maybe as the one wild card in there. I'm not a fan of (Rob) Kearney. He's got a lot of talent and he's terrific in the catch. But I don't think he shows enough commitment to the physical challenge.

"He's a nice runner, but, 50pc of the time, I'd say he hasn't got the pace to take on what he's trying to do. He ends up just running across the pitch. On his day, he can be very very good, but he's been very subdued in this Six Nations.

"I'd definitely have Cian Healy on the tour because the grounds are firm and he's terrific in the loose. But he's average in the scrum, some days fine, some days under pressure. You might be able to get him into the Test team, because Australia have had problems in their front-row over the last four or five years. I'd say Healy and O'Brien are the most likely Irish forwards to make the Test XV.

"But that's the thing this year. If you went back to '71 and was asked who's going to be on the Lions Test side, you'd have said 'okay Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mike Gibson, David Duckham, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams, Mervyn Davies, Willie John McBride, Ray McLoughlin ... ' bang you've nearly 10 names straight away without argument from anybody in the room.

"If you tried that exercise two months ago, the debate would have been all over the place. And the Welsh players were the guys who were in the toilet at that stage!"

DL: "Well without giving it massive thought, off the top of my head: Halfpenny, Cuthbert, Roberts or Tuilagi, O'Driscoll, North, Sexton, Philips, Healy, Best, Adam Jones, Wynn-Jones, Evans, Warburton, Tipuric, O'Brien.

"But look, go back to '01, Rob Henderson would have been an outsider just to make the squad and ended up playing all three Tests. By the time it comes to it, I believe Rob Kearney will be in the mix. I think he's only played seven matches this season, so he'll be fresh."

And the captain?

FS: "If he's fully fit, I think O'Driscoll is a good option as a captain, particularly if there's an awful lot of Welsh players. I think politically, particularly with Gatland as coach, it might be wise to break the thing up a little bit. I don't mean that as a slight on O'Driscoll's ability. There'd want to be a very good reason not to bring him on the tour, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's got to play in the Test matches. Obviously, though, it would help."

DL: "I'd pick O'Driscoll for two principal reasons. One, I think it's very hard to captain a Lions tour when you haven't been on one previously. But also I can't think of another player in the home countries who just ticks every single box for the job.

"Is he playing well enough? He showed signs in the Six Nations that he can and you'd certainly back him every time. On top of that, I can't think of any other player who'd want to win this Test series more than O'Driscoll. He's on record as saying he's not going there to see the (Sydney) Harbour Bridge or just to say he was on a fourth Lions tour.

"He wants to go to win and I think that attitude is exactly what the Lions need."

Will the Lions win the Test series?

FS: "I don't really know enough about Australia, but I would think the Lions should win. And it will probably be one of those 2-1 victories. Actually, that's how I'd hope it's going to go. But the Lions will have to work hard to do it. The Australians will definitely improve."

DL: "I think it will be extremely tight and definitely 2-1. Apart from the Tests, it's a very difficult itinerary, I mean you've five Super 15 franchises.

"But, if I was to put my house on it, I would just shade it towards the Lions. And the fact that the Welsh were within a score of Australia in all three Tests last summer will give them a great belief that they can win. A lot of the English players are inexperienced by comparison, so I think Wales' experience will actually serve the Lions well.

"But there'll be no three-nil series win. It's going to be fascinating."

 

Lions Rugby Travel is the official travel company for the Lions Tour 2013 – www.lionstour.com. Packages in Ireland are available from Killester Travel – www.killestertravel.com

Irish Independent

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