DONAL LENIHAN: What’s rare is wonderful: Why the Lions tour still captivates

That drawn series was undoubtedly my rugby highlight of the year, writes Donal Lenihan

Anyone who thinks that leading a Lions tour is a bit of a jolly had better have a chat with Warren Gatland.

“I hated the tour. I just hated the press and the negativity in New Zealand. I’m done with the Lions. It was tough work.”

Gatland had the final word on the 2017 tour to New Zealand when asked to comment on Sean O’Brien’s criticisms on that captivating three-Test series against the All Blacks when interviewed in his capacity as Wales coach recently.

Suffice to say these tours tend to be far more enjoyable for those following the event than when operating at the coalface given the ridiculous demands placed on the players and management. That drawn series was undoubtedly my rugby highlight of the year but I have a lot of sympathy for where Gatland is coming from.

The bottom line is Lions tours can be incredibly demanding, not helped by the fact your own committee are complicit in sending you off on tour with one hand tied behind your back. The challenge facing Gatland last summer was unprecedented, even for the Lions, with a massively punishing playing schedule and no meaningful preparation time.

What the 2017 tourists achieved, in those circumstances, was nothing short of astounding, even if they did ride their luck right to the final whistle in that captivating third Test.

I am convinced that if Sonny Bill Williams hadn’t executed a reckless tackle on Anthony Watson, for which he was correctly sent off 25 minutes into the second Test, New Zealand would have won the series in Wellington with a game to spare.

But he did and deserved his sanction. In doing so he became the first ever All Black to be sent off on home soil, the first of any description since Irish referee Kevin Kelleher sent Colin Meads off against Scotland in Murrayfield back in 1967.

Plenty All Blacks have sailed close to the wind on that front, even in recent times. Malakai Fekitoa should have seen red for a high tackle on Simon Zebo in Dublin last season, as could Sam Cane in the same game.

What Gatland’s comments highlight is just how difficult it is for the Lions to succeed, especially in New Zealand. That said, even with the ridiculously deficient prep time afforded to the party, if the 2017 squad were heading to South Africa or Australia, they would have won the series with comparative ease.

That is a sad reflection on the state of the game in those two traditional rugby strongholds at present. The biggest legacy of the 2017 Lions tour was not the achievement in drawing the series but in highlighting, especially to the traditionally biased New Zealand supporters, the value the Lions still bring to the international game.

I attended a dinner on the eve of the third Test, hosted by Rugby Travel Ireland who had 300 happy punters drawn from all corners of Britain and Ireland, and it was clear how much they loved the experience and concept of coming together to support the amalgamation. Every rugby fan should aspire to experience at least one Lions tour in their lifetime.

On the back of what was universally seen as a successful tour, O’Brien’s comments, directed at members of the coaching staff, attracted plenty of attention. Given the compressed nature of the tour, the challenge in dealing with over 40 players, and the temptation to cram as much preparation into a limited timeframe before the opening Test, it was inevitable that management made mistakes.

We did on the 2001 tour of Australia, Gatland did last time out, and, I’m quite sure, whoever takes roles in 2021 will reflect on the tour and acknowledge that there are things that they too would do differently.

With the Lions, less is always more but that doesn’t sit well with the modern-day coach who, by nature, will attempt to tick every box and cover every eventuality. From a playing perspective, I can appreciate where O’Brien was coming from with his assertion that “the Lions should have the best coaches”. In that respect, he is correct but given the complex nature and makeup of the tourists, that is not always possible or, in specific cases, even desirable.

It was rather ironic that much of O’Brien’s ire was aimed in the direction of backs coach Rob Howley but, in reality, he was Gatland’s third or fourth choice for the position. It is well documented that the position was Joe Schmidt’s to turn down, which he did, opting instead to lead Ireland on tour to America and Japan.

That call has proved hugely beneficial with a number of those players featuring in the recent November series. Next up, Gatland targeted Gregor Townsend, a potential future Lions’ coach, but he opted to concentrate on his new role at the Scottish helm on their summer tour.

That elevated former Scotland and current Glasgow Warriors’ backs coach Jason O’Halloran into the picture. However, the former All Black also choose to use the summer period to bed himself into his new role with Glasgow as opposed to travelling to New Zealand.

That’s the thing with the Lions. From a coaching perspective, you may have a wishlist to cherry pick from but, for a variety of reasons, you don’t always get what you want — something which O’Brien failed to grasp.

Of course, the Carlow man is absolutely right that the Lions should seek to be the best of the best but, unlike being able to call on the best players from the four home countries, coaches have existing responsibilities and contractual obligations that they can’t just turn their backs on.

There is also the issue of trying to merge a group of highly talented coaches — all of whom are used to getting things done in their own way — to gel in a highly competitive environment with little or no time available.

In theory a coaching trio of Gatland, Schmidt, and Eddie Jones might appear like a dream ticket but in practice, in the heat of a Lions tour, I’m convinced they wouldn’t be able to work together. They are all used to being in charge. Having an existing chemistry and prior experience of working together is also crucial.

Then there is the question of where your priorities lie. The WRU have been extremely generous in their decision to release Gatland for two one-year sabbaticals to concentrate on preparing for a Lions tour but was that in the best interests of Welsh rugby?

Schmidt’s decision to turn down that potential opportunity, either as a head or assistant coach, in favour of leading Ireland on that summer tour has enabled him to run the rule over an emerging group of players and assess their readiness to compete at the top level.

The Lions loss certainly proved Ireland’s gain in terms of the four weeks Schmidt was able to spend assessing the next generation of Irish internationals. The immediate payback is that he knows with certainty that Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan are ready to step up to Six Nations action next month. Had he not toured he might not yet have been in a position to make such a call while the exposure to all that young talent will also prove highly beneficial in advance of formulating his 2019 World Cup squad.

That’s the dilemma for potential Lions coaches. For a six-week period every four years it captivates the imagination of rugby fans everywhere. What’s rare is wonderful. However, it quickly fades into oblivion.

Will Wales or Ireland be better served in the long run by the insight Gatland and his fellow Welsh coaches gained on the key Scottish, English, and Irish players, or will the insight Schmidt gleaned on the next generation of Irish players prove the missing link from his 2015 experience when he leads the charge for World Cup glory in Japan in 2019?

Only time will tell.


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