Before we go any further, we all have to take a deep breath and forget our national bias! If not, then this blog is going to fail badly... (Nothing new there then!)
I was pretty pleased with the Lions squad, the were the obvious surprises, Matt Stevens being the obvious one and only two fly-halves, but overall I thought it was a fair reflection of the players' form in the Six Nations. My big concern was the captaincy choice. Now before you Welsh boys start throwing things at the screen, hear me out! I am a huge fan of Warburton, I thought he was outstanding in the 2011 World Cup and I think, when on form, he is one of the best in the Northern Hemisphere. So, do not accuse me of anti-Warburtonitis. I am a definite fan! What concerns me about the selection is far more of a reflection on Gatland and a worrying insight into his mindset.
The captaincy is the first big decision, and on Gatland's first big decision, he plays safe and goes for 'his boy', something he even admitted himself. Now my question is this, is that really the mindset necessary to make the Lions work? Surely you cannot go for the safe option, surely the Lions is all about stepping out of your comfort zone and picking the right man for the job, whether he plays in green, blue, red or white? If when faced with tough decisions, you always go for the safe option, what signal does that give to all the other players, who are not Welsh? And then there is the other issue that the real form number seven at the moment is Tipuric - as shown again in the heat of Hong Kong. Why give yourself that headache before you have even landed in Australia?
Let's not get into the argument of playing both Tipuric and Warburton, as I think we all agree we need a line out target at the back, and if the inform Faletau is at eight, then Croft or Lydiate are the obvious number sixes.
I know McGeechan has spoken of the bond necessary between coach and captain on a Lions tour, presumably in defence of many peoples' belief that Hastings was not the right guy to captain in 1993. And before anyone says it, or even thinks it, no I am not suggesting it should have been me - you could not be further from the truth - I think a Winterbottom or Richards should have been the man. I do take issue with McGeechan on his stance as the last Lions victorious tour was led by a man that McGeechan hardly knew, one Martin Johnson! There was a standout player, who was a definite for the test team, and hence earned the trust and belief of all the touring players in an instant. The Lions captain must be the best man for the job, not the man that the coach feels most comfortable with.
The fundamental issue that breaks or makes any Lions tour is trust. Sounds obvious, as trust in any rugby team is vital, but there are the added elements of bugger all time and historic enemies at play within a Lions squad. I would like to believe there is always respect amongst players, because even if you spend every year trying to beat each other and trying to beat the **** out of each other, there is still the respect for great players who you come up against. But in a national team there is the trust and belief that from the coaches down, everyone wants to win games and deliver the best team out onto the field. In a Lions environment there is always that nagging doubt that a coach from a certain country will favour his players, and now they have so many specialist coaches, that nagging doubt could easily become raging paranoia over every coach's specialist area!
So Gatland's every move and utterance will be watched and listened to by the players, and in these first few weeks, that trust is either won or lost. And if lost, it is never coming back.
People who know Gatland well tell me that he will make sure there is time to relax and have fun on the tour, as he has a strong streak of 'old school' in him, and hence the odd beer will be almost compulsory! That will be crucial too as players need to learn to see each other as mates, rather than opponents, and having a little 'down time' is crucial for that. As with everything it is all about getting the balance right, something we rather failed to do on the '93 tour.
We were in Dunedin, I think, or Christchurch, and a few players had obviously had quite a night, as we were given a blunt bollocking by Geoff Cooke, our manager, ending with the words: "Being woken up by players coming in at 3am is not my idea of the right attitude. So I will leave you with your captain to bloody sort out."
With that he left.
I looked over my shoulder and caught the eye of one Jason Leonard in the row behind me. I leant back in my chair and whispered to him: "You I presume?"
"Piss off," came the reply, "5 o'clock was me..."
If that was not bad enough, Gavin launched into a speech about the tour and the responsibility of being a Lion. I remember he finished with the line: "So just remember we are on a bloody Lions tour, we are not on a bloody holiday."
And from the back of the room came: "'I am".
And then: "So am I".
It was like some Monty Python sketch!
Sadly that tour fractured badly, and the chance to beat the All Blacks was lost, when the Lions certainly had the ability and talent. In my view biased selection, or poor selection, whichever way you want to look at it was the problem. Precipitated by a battle between Geoff Cooke and McGeechan, who from my view point obviously were not the best of mates! It was a chance lost, and shows how fragile a Lions tour can be.
In the next few weeks, fingers crossed that this tour and the squad knit together as they did in 1997 and produce a tour that we can all enjoy and celebrate. Those who have written the Australians off have obviously never played sport against them, as they will be clever, ruthless and very difficult to beat. But I am ever the optimist, and here's to hoping.