RUGBY: If I could turn back the clock ...

The 2001 Lions came within a stray pass of winning the test series in Australia. As the tourists prepare to return in 2013, tour manager from 12 years ago, Donal Lenihan provides a unique insight into what might have been — and what he’d do differently now.

WHEN Lions tour manager Andy Irvine and head coach Warren Gatland announced key additions to their management team for next summer’s tour to Australia in a lavish affair at Hopetoun House, Edinburgh earlier this month, I couldn’t help but let my mind drift a little.

If transported back in time to 2001 what would I, as manager, do differently this time, given there are always lessons to be learned. Lions tours stand or fall on marginal things and when you lose a Test Series 2-1, with an opportunity to win the deciding test going into the final few minutes, of course there are things that, even with the passage of time, stick in the stomach.

I have met a number of players from that tour over the years and it is amazing how, to a man, they too harbour regrets over losing that fantastic series. Next summer’s expedition celebrates the 125th anniversary of Lions heritage but in that time they have only ever won four test series, those famous back-to-back wins in New Zealand and South Africa in 1971 and 1974 followed by isolated triumphs in Australia in 1989 and South Africa in 1997.

That gives an indication of how the odds are always stacked against the Lions, despite the calibre of player in their ranks.

The 2001 tour was always going to be a big challenge given that John Eales had led the hosts to World Cup glory two years earlier and won the Tri Nations series for the first time the following year before going on to retain it in the months after our tour. It took them 10 years to win it again.

One of the key elements in structuring a Lions tour is getting the right balance in the coaching team. Bringing a bunch of very talented players from four different countries together in the very limited timeframe before the crucial opening test always poses the biggest challenge. On the modern tours that window only extends to four weeks and it is vital therefore that the coaching staff are quickly on the same wavelength.

One of the difficulties I faced was that there was a degree of uncertainty over the availability of Ian McGeechan as he had just been re-appointed Scottish head coach after his stint with Northampton and Jim Telfer, in his capacity as Director of Rugby, was not in the least bit keen on releasing him for Lions duty.

As a player under his tutelage in Australia in 1989 and a Lions selector in the build up to that successful 1997 tour, I appreciated more than anyone that he was the ideal man for the role. McGeechan made it absolutely clear to me that he wanted to do the job but despite three separate trips to Edinburgh, Telfer stuck to his guns and was unwilling to release him.

At the time, Warren Gatland was learning his trade after two years in the Ireland job and having worked with him, I knew it was too early for him to be entrusted with the role. Clive Woodward was at the head of the English coaching set up and while they were making rapid strides in the professional game and were ahead of the other home countries on that front, all my research turned up the same information — he did little or no coaching.

That led to Graham Henry who had taken over the Welsh national side in the autumn of 1998 after they were humiliated 96-13 by South Africa in Pretoria the previous June. Within two years he had transformed their fortunes and was clearly an outstanding coach. The fact that he was a New Zealander didn’t matter a jot to me but given the furore that followed his appointment in some quarters, it appeared not everyone was as forward thinking. I find it mildly amusing now that another New Zealander has assumed the role, with nobody batting an eye, and with good cause — we are in a professional game.

My brief from the Lions committee was quite simple — appoint the best man for the job. With Geech unavailable, despite spending four months trying to get him, Henry was unquestionably the next best and has gone on to prove his credentials.

However, it proved somewhat problematic on the tour that Graham had never worked with the assistant coaches Andy Robinson, Phil Larder and Dave Alred, all of whom had a strong working relationship as part of the England set-up. There were also issues surrounding the fact that neither Ireland, Wales or Scotland had a defence coach which put their players at a disadvantage when working with Larder. Defence was becoming the key focus for teams after Australia won that 1999 World Cup, conceding just one try in the tournament.

Larder was insistent on getting as much preparation time as possible as he sought to bring players from the Celtic nations up to speed with his drills and defensive structure. Every coach becomes paranoid about their specific areas of responsibility and demand more time to fine-tune their efforts, especially on such a high profile tour. Self-preservation tends to take over. Robinson was packing in extra line-out sessions on designated days off and Graham Henry was struggling to keep a rein on the coaching support at a time when he was also trying to build relationships. The bottom line was that the players suffered from over-exposure on the training field and were worked too hard in the early part of the tour. If I had my time back again, that would change.

Back then, coaches were still learning best practice in the early days of professionalism and didn’t appreciate that at times, less is more. One of the key lessons learned was that it is a major advantage to have a block of coaches that are used to working with each other and understand each other. On a limited timeframe, the biggest challenge in putting a Lions test side together is understanding what you can afford to let out. It is like cramming for an exam. All the players that will tour Australia in 2013 are now ultra professional, understand the different type of systems used in structured attack and defence plays; therefore it is more a case of cherry picking and fine tuning. We didn’t have that luxury back then as the four countries were at different stages of evolution in the new professional era.

The one thing that has to be said is that all the hard work put in over the first three weeks of the tour did pay dividends and resulted in some of the best quality rugby played by any Lions touring side in history. The demolition of Super 12 semi-finalists Queensland Reds two weeks before the opening test still resonates while the interplay and quality of the tries in the opening two tests were superb. However, the workload undertaken dictated that the series had to be in the bag by the completion of the second test.

The other regret I have is that the necessity to get the side up to speed for the key opening test meant that after the opening two tour games, the midweek side didn’t get the preparation time needed to show their talents which meant that players looking to impress in those games were at a disadvantage.

It is a big challenge for the coaching staff when you are constantly trying to prepare two different sides at any one point in time. Something has to give. Woodward tried to address this issue on the 2005 tour by having two distinct coaching groups and splitting the squad in two locations. That proved an unmitigated disaster and something I would never contemplate. The unity of the squad is crucial and splitting them like that is self-defeating.

I would have a concern next summer for Warren Gatland’s down-sized coaching ticket in attempting to prepare two different sides every week. The difficulty with this is, when the coaches need to be at you sharpest in the last two weeks of the tour, they are absolutely knackered.

The Lions have a very demanding itinerary next year, with only one gimme match against the combined NSW-Queensland Country side. The opening two games against the Barbarians in Hong Kong (I would insist on the Lions having an input on that Barbarians selection) and the Western Force Super 15 side the following Wednesday in Perth, have the capacity to test the touring party when they are still negotiating travel and familiarity difficulties.

The fact that they will have two collective sessions, one in Carton House in Dublin and the other at the Vale of Glamorgan, before they leave will be a help but with the Aviva Premiership and Rabo Direct Pro 12 finals scheduled for the weekend before departure, you wonder just how effective or meaningful they will be. Murphy’s Law will ensure some poor soul will end up with an injury in one of those games that will rule him out of the tour.

The biggest regret I have from 2001 is the fact that we were in position to wrap up the series in the second test in Melbourne after another scintillating half of rugby had us five points ahead at the break. The final instructions taking the field for the second half was to prioritise territory for the next quarter of play. Unfortunately right from the restart, Jonny Wilkinson made an error when moving the ball wide when the kick was on. The pass was intercepted by Joe Roff for a try completely against the run of play which brought them right back into the contest.

We then had a blatant elbow to the head by Australian centre Nathan Grey on Richard Hill, which I saw again recently and it looks even worse with the passage of time. Hill was a massive loss and the series was turned on its head when he was forced off the field. Quite how Grey wasn’t even cited by the independent commissioner, a New Zealander, after the game remains a mystery. When I rang him to enquire why he didn’t cite, he more or less told me to mind my own business before catching the next available flight home.

Then again, given that Kevin Mealamu and Tana Umaga weren’t cited either four years later for that tackle on Brian O’Driscoll, you get an idea of what the Lions are up against on tour. Only then do you begin to fully understand what the touring side was up against in the good old amateur days when all the games were handled by local referees.

By the time the third test came around the players were held together by sticking plaster to such a degree that in the Captain’s Run on the day before that final test in Sydney, only ten of the side starting the following day could take part. By that stage, nine of our original squad were ruled out due to injury. Yet the third test and the series went down to the final play. Much was made of Justin Harrison’s line out steal at the death against Martin Johnson but there was no guarantee that we would have scored had we won possession. Such is sport.

All the talk of the Lions being clear favourites for next summer’s tour, given the horrendous year just put down by the Wallabies, is wide of the mark as the injuries are already beginning to mount. Warren Gatland’s recent comment that Australia is the easiest country for the Lions to tour may yet come back to haunt him. The Aussies cannot wait for the Lions to roll into town and will do everything in the provincial games to make life as difficult as possible in the build up to that crucial opening test. The fact that they have stuck with Robbie Deans as coach will also help them.

As for me and 2001, the one thing I allow myself look back on with pride is my insistence while on reconnaissance in advance of the tour and during the tour itself that we should be known as the British and Irish Lions. It took a while to bed in but by the time the 2005 tour came around the name change was incorporated and thankfully endures to this day.

Handed the British Lions, I was more than happy to return the British and Irish Lions.


LIONS 2013 SCHEDULE

June <

1st: Barbarians v British & Irish Lions, Hong Kong

5th: Western Force v British & Irish Lions, Perth

8th: Queensland Reds v British & Irish Lions, Brisbane

12th: Comb NSW-Queensland Country v British & Irish Lions, Newcastle

15th: NSW Waratahs v British & Irish Lions, Sydney

18th: ACT Brumbies v British & Irish Lions, Canberra

22nd: First Test: Australia v British & Irish Lions, Brisbane

22nd: Canada v Ireland, Vancouver, British Columbia.

25th: Melbourne Rebels v British & Irish Lions, Melbourne

29th: Second Test: Australia v British & Irish Lions, Melbourne

July

6th: Third Test: Australia v British & Irish Lions, Sydney.


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