The Lions Enter 'Judgement Time'

So the first Test is looming, and with it the onset of serious judgement for both coaches. Who would have guessed it a few years ago, the Lions playing Australia and two Kiwis are heading up the opposing sides? I know I am old school here but there is a large part of me that regrets this scenario.

So the first Test is looming, and with it the onset of serious judgement for both coaches. Who would have guessed it a few years ago, the Lions playing Australia and two Kiwis are heading up the opposing sides? I know I am old school here, and I know the 'old fart' comment will now be directed at me, and fair enough, but there is a large part of me that regrets this scenario.

I would like the Lions head coach to speak with either the gentle lilt of the Irish, the gruff authority of the Scottish, the melodic tunes of a Welshman, or the plums of an Englishman! I am old fashioned like that. There I have said it. I have no issue with the coaching team being made up of talent from across the globe, but for me, the main man should be British.

Maybe the Aussies do not agree about their main man, but that is up to them, when playing them, I would like to hear the Aussie slur when listening to their head coach, and that is before any beer has been responsibly drunk!

It hit me this year (what an old fart I am) when England played Scotland. Instead of a David Sole type, a Finlay Calder warrior, we had an Aussie talking about what an England vs Scotland game meant to them! It was just all wrong, I want, I need to hear a Scottish growl, to hear that passion, that fervour to beat England, and nothing against the Aussies, but that is not a time when I want to hear that Aussie twang!

There is also the issue of the Lions brand here, which is so treasured by so many, both from a playing point of view and a fans perspective. Both were confused, a polite phrase, by the Hong Kong saga. Was this a legitimate stop off en route, that worked from a physiological and rugby playing perspective, or was this a sponsor's request? All the right noises were made by coaches and players alike in alignment to the first reason, in public anyway. But what message did it send out to the fans and rugby followers with a far from full stadium and breaks in play to safe guard the players from dehydrations - surely precisely the start to a tour the medical team would have insisted upon!

It is an obvious point, but surely great sponsorship is about enhancing sport, serving a brand such as the Lions, not about diverting it for your gain. And don't get me wrong, I am not saying this was the case in Hong Kong, as none of us knows the truth, but which ever reality it was, it is fair to say it was not a well thought through plan.

So accents, coaches' birth places and sponsors aside, looking at the two coaches situation, it would be fair to say, both have courted a fair amount of controversy. Deans has ignored the talent of Quade Cooper. Erratic as he might be at times, there is still no doubting how lethal he can be in opening up defences. And the question has to be asked, is it more about a personality clash than a straight assessment of skill? If it is down to personality, then the decision is wrong and a poor reflection on Deans.

And don't give me that "he is only human" line, or even, he is bad for team morale! If that is the case, how does he survive at the Reds? And survive, even flourish he certainly does. Deans has to divorce his own personal emotions, and select purely for the good of the Australian team.

And believe it or not, I do have experience of this situation. Crazy as it may seem now, when I was made captain, at 22, I was also involved in selection of the side. It does seem bizarre in this current professional environment, but I do think it gave a voice to players and a player's viewpoint, which the coach at the time, Geoff Cooke took very seriously. What it made me realise, very quickly and following on from some impressive dummy-spitting episodes on my part, was that my involvement in selection was not an exercise in picking my mates and dropping my enemies, it was about picking the best England side. Pure and simple.

Some of the toughest conversations I had were with some really good mates who were dropped, the likes of Simon Halliday, Mike Teague, Rob Andrew and Dean Richards, although Dean had seen through me and realised I was an arse!

And on the other side were conversations with the likes of Stuart Barnes, when he was selected. Stuart was no fool, he knew I was a good friend of Rob Andrew's, but my point to him, and I remember sitting in a hotel room in the Petersham hotel having this conversation, was that he would be treated as fairly and as inclusively as any other member of the team. England was not a bunch of mates, it was a team whose number one goal was to win, and in order to achieve that, the best players needed to be selected and to work together and trust each other.

And the same analysis of selection should and needs to be applied to Warren Gatland. Of course everyone will have had their national favourites but that is all old news, and it needs to be with Warren too. His selection of Warburton has already been discussed in an earlier blog, and his inclusion of Shane Williams raised one or two eyebrows too! Shane at his best was one of the great sights for Welsh fans, and rugby fans in general, but are we really saying that he is still at his best? And the other question that Warren opened himself up to, was would he really have made that selection if Shane had not played under him for Wales? Would he have picked an old English, Irish or Scottish player, just because they were half way there?

The issue that I have with that particular selection is this - yes, there might have been some 'convenience' to the selection, but surely the shirt is more important than to be worn for 'convenience' issues? The vast, vast majority of players never get to wear that shirt, and for the lucky few who do, it has got to mean more than wearing it because you were staying nearby? For the sake of the brand, the history, the legends that have gone before, that shirt needs to be earned, and earned every single time that it is put on. And that happens by picking the best players to wear it, and only the best players, no matter the effort, time or hassle it takes in getting them there.

Confidence is running high amongst Lions supporters, but I am worried, as the Aussies are never easy to beat, especially at home. There have been a few glimpses of their planning already, the targeting of Mike Phillips, who they obviously feel they can wind up enough to instigate some 'red mist' into his decision making. The numbers and tactics the Brumbies employed at the breakdown caused the Lions huge problems, amplified by the lineout difficulties. The Lions have power, and they have scrummaging gods to pick from and a goal kicking genius, here's hoping it gives them a cornerstone on which to build a first Test victory.


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