BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Lions concept is a readymade excuse

Few teams can run out onto a pitch with as many ready-made reasons for defeat as the Lions which, in itself, must be an issue for Warren Gatland, writes Brendan O’Brien.

Excuses, excuses. Sure, where would we be without them? The world of sports, for one, would be a much duller place given we’ve been treated to all manner of brilliantly ridiculous offerings from players, athletes, coaches, managers, administrators and spectators across the spectrum. And from all corners of this mad-as-a-brush planet.

No-one seems immune.

Football alone is worthy of a book of the best. Kenny Dalglish once blamed Newcastle United’s FA Cup defeat to Stevenage Borough on the balls being too bouncy while, for Ukraine at the 2006 World Cup, it was the chorus of croaking frogs outside their hotel that was key to their 4-0 hammering by Spain the next day.

Nothing to do with any shoddy defending. No, not at all.

North Korean coach Kim Kwang-min put his side’s 2-0 reversal to Germany at the 2011 Women’s World Cup into perspective - or so he thought - when he explained that his players were tired after being struck by lightning in training and Alex Ferguson once blamed Manchester United’s struggles away to Southampton on their grey jerseys blending in with the crowd. Now, of course, it is only United’s football that is colourless.

Few teams can run out onto a pitch with as many ready-made reasons for defeat as the British and Irish Lions which, in itself, must be an issue for Warren Gatland and his predecessors who have always had to instil belief in players for the type of venture that everyone knows is rigged for failure like some insidious Ponzi scheme.

Four teams squeezed into one, like too much playdough through a tube. Players from four nations having to laugh at the jokes and share a shower with guys who’d usually rather rain on their parades. A tiny window of preparation. The endless chore of hotel room after hotel room until you could use your room keys as playing cards.

And all this at the fag end of a season in a punishing contact sport and with the best team in the world awaiting them in their own back yard where the days are short and cold and the nights long and unable to be filled with the sort of social exploits that kept the Lions of old both sane and sozzled.

By the time Gatland names his squad for the first Test in Eden Park on June 24 almost half of the players will be pissed off because they’ve been omitted — eight more will be left cooling their heels on the bench — and so have little to look forward to other than the next round of the many PR exercises that come as part of the package.

Even those are potential pitfalls.

“The next day in the media there would be a picture of little Johnny at whatever rugby club because the Lions hadn’t come there and we had just spent six hours (somewhere else),” said Geordan Murphy who toured the country in 2005. “It just never seemed to be enough. There was never anything you did that was positive. There was a negative spin on everything that we did.”

You’d imagine, then, that the Lions would look to make things as easy for themselves as possible this time. Control the controllables, you might call it. Leaving Alistair Campbell at home and burning the manual Clive Woodward used when taking, in effect, two separate teams back in 2005 was a pretty good start but own-goals have still been scored.

The tie-in with Qantas brought with it what was otherwise a needless stopover in Melbourne on the way. The players had to grab half-a-dozen hours sleep in a hotel on landing, and this less than a week before 23 of them were due to kick-off the first of 11 games, against the New Zealand Barbarians at Whangarei, tomorrow.

The fixture list is another head-shaker.

Suggestions that the non-Test matches in South Africa in ’09 and Australia four years ago weren’t competitive enough have been countered with the sort of gruelling schedule — against four of the five Kiwi Super Rugby sides as well as the New Zealand Maori - that makes you wonder if someone in Lions HQ is a descendant of the Marquis de Sade.

Add in the laughable turnaround from club to Lions duties and the only conclusion is that the Lions organisation doesn’t deserve to succeed in New Zealand. Not just that, but that it would be dangerous were the unthinkable to happen and they somehow edged the All Blacks in the series.

Do that and future tours will be run in much the same manner and we’ve seen before how players have returned from Lions duties high on adrenalin but low on fuel and the injuries that have mounted up in the years that followed.

The more likely scenario is that the Lions lose, and maybe badly. Do that and they will have no-one to blame but themselves.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @ByBrendanOBrien


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