Why Rory is Gatland’s Best option at hooker

NEED to know how the Lions mess with your head? On the morning of Warren Gatland’s tour squad announcement I was watching Sky Sports News thinking ‘my name could get called out here’.

That’s despite the fact that I knew every potential tourist had been notified of the possibility by letter beforehand. Call it Lions fever. At the beginning of this season, I was weighing up likely rivals for a squad place and reckoned the Irish situation may work out in my favour because they could, given my experience, bring two Irish tens on tour.

As things transpired, I didn’t get a chance to stake that claim because of omission from the Ireland squad, but I like the way Gatland and his selectors are thinking by backing Jonny Wilkinson for a role. They realise this series might come down to who has the balls to kick a winning penalty. That isn’t dissing Jonny Sexton or Owen Farrell — who will kick you eight out of ten pressure kicks. The difference with Wilkinson is he gives you 9.5 out of ten. He’s Mr Ronseal. He does what it says on the tin.

Imagine for a second Munster had beaten Clermont-Auvergne. Was it then a shoot-out between Wilkinson and myself at Aviva Stadium in the Heineken Cup final for a Lions spot? This process is mad. At one stage you mightn’t even be in the top six or seven out-halves, but circumstances work in your favour and it becomes a you-or-Wilkinson scenario. That’s the reality of it.

Happily for me, there’s no regret or rancour. I’ve had three unbelievable Lions tours which allows me to write this kind of stuff without a jaundiced eye or a feeling I’ve been slighted or had an unfulfilled career. Point-scoring ain’t where it’s at.

However, you never forget those feelings of nervous excitement, even among experienced players, that the squad feels today in Hong Kong and next week when they touch down in Perth.

Some fellas would have been thinking about Australia in the changing room of the third Test in South Africa four years ago. On the plane home from New Zealand in 2005, I was looking to fast-forward my life four years to South Africa. The mind of a professional sportsperson.

Everyone’s different.

England’s Chris Ashton has been honest enough to say recently that the prospect of the Lions tour became too much of a distraction for him this season, that it affected his performances. I can relate to that. In fairness to Sky Sports, it’s massively hyped up from a long way out, that’s what they do. They sensationalise it remarkably well.

Paul O’Connell will lead the side tomorrow against the Barbarians. The tour officially started with that announcement. There will be no uncertainty now, because it’s no longer a bonus fixture against the BaBa’s. The fellas getting a start are getting a nice treat with him as leader. There is little doubt now but that they will hit the ground running.

In 2009, the tone was set on the first day in the meeting room by Paulie in Pennyhill Park Hotel. He spoke from the heart and within 15 minutes of coming together, the mood for the tour was set. Fantastic. He thinks deeply about the game, a lot more than other Test players. O’Connell is a perfectionist. His position is suited to that, because as a second row it’s all about aptitude, attitude, hard work and fitness. These are Paul’s core values. He’s a very powerful and impressive figure when he stands up.

On the bus to the airport, we all had to go up to the mic and introduce ourselves with a one-liner about each other. There was all the usual cheesy stuff until Andy Powell went up: ‘Hi I’m Andy Powell and I’ll be your go forward man on this tour’. The group went ape. He became a real character on that tour. The Welsh boys had left their meet-up point at 5.45 that morning, and got a bus with a stop-off in Cardiff where Andy’s mum had bacon butties for everyone wrapped in tinfoil. Then he just set the tone with those few words. Warren Gatland would be big on having the craic, something I think he learned from his time in Ireland. It isn’t just about the rugby. That’s exactly what Bryce Cavanagh in Munster goes on about when he speaks about the other 22 hours of your day — only two hours is spent training. Coaches are searching for The Other You.

For instance, on the New Zealand tour in 2005, it was grim and depressing: too many players on the tour, the group split between the Saturday and Wednesday teams and we all room on our own. That’s okay when you’re senior Test players, but these are the trips of a lifetime, you have great craic with your room-mate on them. You can get privacy when you need it to Skype home but it is fundamental that there is a gelling process on a rugby tour and rooming together facilitates it.

Even getting your new Lions stash is different. We’ve all got gear from Munster and Ireland but with the amount of blue chip Lions sponsors, you might have a laptop or an iPad thrown in there. The goodie bag would be better than the gear bag.

That sort of thing goes with being a Lion.

Gatland’s had a good start. It was a smart move to pick a young Welsh player as captain like Sam Warburton. I think he knows he has O’Driscoll and O’Connell in the dressing room too. You have a triangle there that may well bring out the best in each other.

The unlucky omission is Simon Zebo, who could play in any of the back three positions. He has that X Factor and the Lions like a flash player. They feed off it. I’d be confident he will get out there at some stage if one of the back three options open up, but if he’d gone from the start, he would have a right chance of making a Test team. Nothing fazes him, as we saw in Cardiff. He’s willing to try stuff, he has huge self belief, not the false belief some young lads have. With him, it’s an inherent belief.

At Test level he has never been tested defensively, but by the same token he has never been exposed. He’s a big strong man who wouldn’t have trained hard as a young fella but has all the genes to make him an explosive athlete. I’ve trained with him closely in the last year, and to see the improvements you’d be saying to him ‘I must get some of that juice you’re on...’

An aside: the day I went over to London to sign with Racing, I met Stephen Ferris who was over getting an ankle clean-out, and he said Tommy Bowe was clocking incredible speeds in training, the fastest of his career. I think he’s more of a footballer than the two Welsh wing options, even though they may be favourite to start in a lot of people’s eyes. But if Tommy gets game-time on the tour, he’ll be hard to leave out of the Test team.

The fascinating conundrum is at hooker. Richard Hibbard gets a start tomorrow against the Barbarians. He wasn’t in the Wales 23-man squad for the first Six Nations game against Ireland. Five games ago he wasn’t considered good enough by the current Welsh Lions selectors to be either of the top two Welsh hookers. Now he’s leapfrogged the Irish hooker, who has played 67 times for his country. The selectors went for Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley in front of Rory Best, who, admittedly, ended up suffering as a result of too much rugby this season.

Not having Paul O’Connell in the Six Nations wasn’t a help, but even after that Rory would have travelled on merit to Australia if he only had one bad day. However, the line-out was poor in Murrayfield and against Italy in Rome. That’s fine, but take a broader perspective: look at Ulster-Northampton in the Heineken Cup games this season — Best outplayed Hartley in every possible facet of the game. With the better quality player on tour now with the Lions, Rory Best will thrive, believe me. He’s a warrior, he’s always been a go-to man in the Irish camp for me. A fella you want on your team, to be in the trenches with you.

I also have huge sympathy for Dylan Hartley. 99% of society don’t understand the mindset of a professional sportsperson; the danger of losing it on the pitch is always high. When it means so much, things happen. You don’t mean it, you put your hand up afterwards. Before that Premiership final, Hartley is thinking ‘don’t stamp on a fella today, don’t clothesline anyone’. But to get 11 weeks for an instinctive reaction and mouthing off to the referee is very unfortunate. This was a final, all his club’s effort for the year were dependent on it. I’ve lost it on the field plenty of times. It’s something you’re not proud of but you’re lying if you say it doesn’t happen. It’s very easy for the experts and the hurlers on the ditch who were never challenged in that position to be lecturing, but get out there and play and see how smart you are.

He got almost the same suspension as Stade Francais’ Jerome Fillol who spat in Peter Stringer’s face and ended up with fourteen weeks.

Similar punishment, same crime?

Hardly.

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