More from the rugby brains trust. A special report from Paul Evans

April 30, 2009
Paul O' Connell

Paul O' Connell

Just to prove even the forwards represented on our rugby brains trust have brains (and I don’t just mean the ad for the beer on their shirts ..) here’s a brilliant analysis of the tour selections from one of our brains trusters

Q: Has ‘the management’ done a reasonable job in selecting O’ Connell and squad?

A: Simply put, yes the management has done an excellent job in selecting the squad. Here’s my rationale with some comments about some of the “flyers” that made the squad.

The Captain: I’ve maintained that O’Connell was the man for the job and I think his performance at Heathrow underlined that. The guy is a physically intimidating specimen. (and reportedly the second strongest guy in the squad after Sheriden.). I think its important that the media when interviewing the captain have to look up to him as opposed to down on him as they would have done if O’Driscoll, a media-savvy kind of guy, had been skipper. I’ve always got the impression that big is best in south africa and O’Connell is up there with the SA finest (Botha and Mountfield)

Additionally I think he has the respect of the squad. As an ex-player myself, I believe the skipper was someone that would bail you out when you’re in trouble and I mean physically protect you if you fall on the wrong side of rucks or if an opposing prop squares up to you. Those kind of actions combined with a never give up and a go forward attitude will be what counts in this very robust tour – witness the South Africans taking out Doddie Weir on the 1997 tour.

Q: What about the media?

A: The last tour “Woodwards Wallies”, despite the inclusion of a QC and Campbell, the handling of the media was nothing short of criminal. South Africa wants the lions. in SA this is nearly as big as the world cup, the country is on the Lions side, skilful utilisation of the media will go far. This means don’t closet yourself away in a fortress, but go out and do all the community things that Lions of old did. Lee Mears is excellent at this kind of work (witness him on Austin Healy’s “Big Tackle”) and the Lions all need to be encouraged to go out there – this signposts to the squad that they’re all equal, and is a great team builder and is integral to forming the identity of each player as a Lion.

Q: Cultural factionalism?

A: I think we have to acknowledge that this is the major stumbling block of previous tours. Henry could not get to grips with it in 2001, when the best Lions squad since 1974 crashed in Australia despite overwhelming them in the first test. Woodward’s handling was even worse, particularly his handling of the squad prior to departure and his dealing with Henson mid-tour.

I think Henry’s only cultural reference to the Lions, was as opposition; he was always going to struggle. Woodward had selected his team before he left, and had communicated this to the squad, meaning some members toured without a prayer of being a member of the test team. I can’t think of a better way of establishing a “them and us” mentality. Furthermore his incapacity to see Henson as a member of the Test team further alienated a professional squad of players who believe that performance is everything. My guess that this didn’t help a number of Welshmen who had to take second place to a team of Englishmen playing on faded glory, despite winning a grand slam.

It interesting to note that on the Woodward tour that the mid week side out performed the Test side – and who was in charge of this team – McGeechan. In the winning tour of Australia (can’t remember the date) and the tour of South Africa in 1997 the midweek team continued to press for honours through performance. I think it was in 1971 on the tour to New Zealand that the Lions played Fiji on the way back. There is that great photo of Gordon Brown coming on as sub wearing shorts that are many sizes too small. On match day Brown wasn’t in the squad, but as injuries took there toll Brown puts his hand up gets changed, borrows kit from wherever to get himself on the pitch to help his mates. It is acknowledged that the Fiji game was a game too far but not for Brown, what a warrior.

In eradicating factionalism there are number of things that the Lions need to establish.

1. that the Test spot is up for grabs – performance will earn you the spot.

2. a culture that establishes that the disappointed support the Team. At every game every player needs to be there, in the crowd, but ready to go. Witness John Bentley’s monologue to camera prior to selection for the first test on “Living with Lions” (LWL) He knew that if not selected it was his job to congratulate the guy in front of him and then do his job as team member (follower).

3. Select the senior players, who effectively are the joint management committee of the tour and represent players views to the management. I think its interesting that Shaw and Quinlan are in the squad, and their role along with some of the senior players may be crucial in this regard. In 1997 the squad had the likes of Dalaglio, Johnson, Leonard, Wainright amongst others, they even managed to force McGeechan to shave his head after winning the second test. The senior players sort out the rules that all adhere to.

4. Get the squad out doing the community building work.

5. Allow the tour shenanigans such as kangaroo courts, a few beers in local pubs etc, but within strict guidelines. (established by senior players) On LWL Keith Wood did a fantastic job at Judge along with Evans as chief prosecutor. Brings squads together and allows players to sort out a few of the egos on the tour. McGeechan was even penalised. In terms of team singing appoint a choir master so that the players don’t just sing one nationality’s songs. Witness the BBC Sportsman of the Year show in 1974 when the Lions squad performed live on TV “Flower of Scotland” – now that’s a team.

Q: What about the players picked?

A: Quinlan is acknowledged as a hard man and a pain at the breakdown. He’s in there to do a job. I think maturity as a tourist probably won his place over the fleet-footed croft. If he doesn’t make the test team he could be a good outside bet for mid-week leader as well as a senior player.

Shaw – interestingly been there in 1997 – there for his tourist skills and seniority as much as for his play on the park.

Vickery – In as a tourist and possibly a mid week general, I don’t think his form rates him as a test starter . but no one will try harder than the raging bull. Could be inspirational to all with his commitment on the training park. Could be a senior player and given a role a s training day forwards leader.

Hines – an outside bet for the Test Team, but definitely there as a tourist. Could be the squad’ enforcer.

[My thanks to Paul for that, and over to you panelists for reactions….Tudor]