June 07 2013
Cricket is not the only sport that will involve an intense Northern-Southern Hemisphere rivalry this summer. The 2013 British and Irish Lions rugby tour of Australia got underway on the weekend of June 1-2. There is a match against the Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Saturday 8 and the three test series against the Wallabies begins in the same stadium on June 22.
The unique attraction of a Lions tour is the quixotic attempt by players who are sworn enemies during the Six Nations to come together as an international team, with weeks rather than months in which to prepare. The last successful Lions tour was to South Africa 16 years ago, which gives some idea of the scale of the challenge. The coaching staff not only have to identify the strongest line-up, they also have to keep the players on the periphery happy and insure that domestic rivalries don’t fester to the detriment of the joint mission.
The head coach for this summer’s expedition is the hard-nosed Kiwi Warren Gatland, who has won the Six Nations twice with Wales but doesn’t seem too partial to Englishmen. In February, he declared that he was reluctant to select too many English players for the Lions tour as they, supposedly, bring too much baggage with them and “are not always the most popular with other countries because of the history”. His comments appeared to be directed at the off-the-pitch headlines about dwarf throwing and binge drinking that marred England’s appearance at the last World Cup in New Zealand. But, under their current coach, Stuart Lancaster, who took charge in 2012, England have made conspicuous attempts to discard that image and they’ve played some pretty good rugby, too – at least up until their rout by Wales in Cardiff in March. Gatland has since insisted that his remarks were misinterpreted and that he’d pick 15 Englishmen in Australia if the players were good enough. But to many, his barbed remarks seemed at odds with the good team-building and motivational techniques that top coaches are hailed for and, in some cases, paid handsomely to share with City boardrooms.
Sir Clive Woodward, who coached England to World Cup victory in 2003 but was also at the helm when the Lions were crushed by the All Blacks two years later, has given numerous lectures to private-sector companies. But to my mind, the best motivational speeches you will ever hear came from Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer, coaches of that triumphant 1997 Lions side in South Africa. A behind-the-scenes documentary, entitled Living With Lions, filmed them talking to the players before the decisive second test in Durban, which the tourists went on to win by three points. Telfer wound up the forwards with a magnificent display of Scots machismo, but McGeechan’s quieter “Days Like This” speech – in which he tells the team what victory will mean to them should they meet again in 30 years time – still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
However jarring Gatland’s approach may seem by comparison, his coaching record suggests that his team ought to give a good account of themselves in the following weeks. But I fear they may just come up short in the tests and I’m backing the Wallabies to win the series by a 2-1 margin at 9-4 with Coral.