Rugby: European leagues sabotaging Lions' tour chances, says former head coach

Paul O'Connell (L) has emerged from an injury cloud as a strong prospect to lead the Lions tour to Austalia.  Photo / APN
Paul O'Connell (L) has emerged from an injury cloud as a strong prospect to lead the Lions tour to Austalia. Photo / APN

Sir Ian McGeechan is rarely aggressive in his condemnations, but just occasionally, when he feels forced to defend something he cherishes, he can be very sharp indeed.

Yesterday, less than a fortnight before the grandest announcement of the rugby calendar - the naming of the Lions party for the coming series in Australia - he declared that the tourists would be meeting the challenge with one hand tied behind their backs.

It was a striking comment, born of the great strategist's frustration at what he sees as the inflexibility of the two major domestic leagues in this part of the world: the English Premiership and the four-nation Pro 12, where most of the leading Celts play their bread-and-butter rugby.

McGeechan, who toured twice with the Lions as a player and went on to perform the head coach duties on a further four occasions, fears this year's best of the best may be compromised by a lack of preparation time.

By way of making matters worse, the French Top 14 title will not be decided until June 1, the day the Lions play the first of their 10 matches against what may well be an unusually strong Barbarians side in Hong Kong.

As a result, a number of big-name candidates for Lions duty currently earning their corn across the water, the World Cup-winning England five-eighths Jonny Wilkinson among them, are either unavailable or the next thing to it.

"Most of the recommendations we made after the last tour were taken on board," said McGeechan, who took the Lions to within a hair's breadth of victory over South Africa in 2009.

"What disappoints me most is that the Premiership and the Pro 12 are holding their finals on a weekend that could, with better organisation, have been planned as a Lions training week. It would have helped the squad, definitely. A Lions tour is the biggest thing, and we have to be big enough to say: If we're going to do it, let's do it properly.

"When we first got together as a squad four years ago, some of the players were involved in a Heineken Cup final and needed recovery time. In effect, we prepared for the first game in South Africa without them, with a view to getting them involved in the second game. This time, there are two finals for the coaches to deal with. We seem to have built in an unfairness towards the Lions - an unfairness that is of our own making.

"For Warren Gatland, [McGeechan's successor as head coach], it's a bigger challenge than I faced in 2009, and I do think that in a sense, he has one hand tied behind his back. Time is always against a Lions squad, but I don't see why the leagues couldn't have taken a couple of weeks out of their seasons by scheduling a round of midweek fixtures here and there.

"If I'm disappointed with anything, it's the short-sightedness."

Like most coaches of his calibre, McGeechan's pessimistic side is always balanced by something a little more optimistic. He believes the Lions stand a chance of beating the Wallabies and re-establishing themselves as a winning sporting brand after contrastingly painful defeats in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa over the last dozen years.

"Some people think there is a lack of experience in some positions, but I believe there are some very good people around, people with the right Lions mentality, who will be in good physical shape," he argued.

However, he also thinks the Wallabies will go into the first test in Brisbane on June 22 with a strong hand of cards. The balance of the preparation will be tipped towards Australia, he predicted.

"We can forget what [Wallabies coach] Robbie Deans is saying to the contrary: it's smoke and mirrors. It will be much easier for his side ... because unlike the Lions, who will effectively be a new side ... they have been involved in the test environment as a group. The Lions haven't."

According to McGeechan, one serious bonus for Gatland is the sudden re-emergence of the Ireland lock Paul O'Connell as a tight forward for all the ages. O'Connell led the Lions in Springbok country last time out but was generally assumed to be out of the running for this trek because of long-term injury. The man from Munster put that notion to bed when he turned in a performance of star quality in the Heineken Cup quarter-final at Harlequins this month, and is now a captaincy contender.

"He's back in the mix and I see that as significant," said McGeechan, who, like Gatland, has a strong preference for forwards in the major leadership roles. "Having a forward as captain helps you make a statement ahead of a test series: you have to be exceptional, in the way Brian O'Driscoll is exceptional, to drive a team from ... further out. Paul's performance against Quins was unbelievable and when you have a second-row forward with his kind of experience showing such a desire to make it happen, it can only be good news.

"It's easy to take a single game out of context, but when you know someone is comfortable in a Lions environment, as Paul is, the only other thing you need to know is whether he's fit and in form."

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