Nick Cain assesses some early problems for the 2013 lions

Warren GatlandWill a Lions tour party ever leave these shores without having a ball-and-chain clapped to their ankle? This week’s coach-naming Press conference was  at a suitably appropriate metal-workers venue, the Ironmonger’s Hall, but shortly after the worst kept secret in rugby was made public on Tuesday afternoon in the City, with Warren Gatland confirmed as head coach of the 2013 Lions tour to Australia, there was still a sense of disbelief in the London air.
That disbelief had nothing to do with the appointment of Gatland, the streetwise Kiwi coach who gave an impressive opening account of himself at the old guild hall, and is clearly the best man for the job. It was more that watching from the Press benches, interspersed with the ranks of sponsors and PR/media cheerleaders, I was left bemused how the Lions, the squad representing arguably the most influential and powerful brand in this sport, will be leaving to take on the Wallabies nine months from now, dragging a weight which could be heavy enough to bring them down.
It means that a series which the Lions should start as favourites to win is now loaded in favour of the Australians, and it is due entirely to a repetition of the completely avoidable Home Union administrative cock-ups that have dogged the Lions throughout their history. The nub of it is that Gatland’s crew are expected to win the series despite having only two Saturday fixtures in Australia to gel together before the first Test, while the Wallabies will know their own game plan, and each other, inside-out after being together since they played age grade rugby.
To make the Lions, a team so central to the success of Rugby Union in Britain and Ireland, such a hostage to fortune is inept – and it shows that by comparison with the sophistication and peerless organisation of the recent Olympics, rugby administration in the Home Unions is still in bum-scratching mode.
Instead of using the unrivalled commercial clout that comes with bringing a couple of hundred million sports tourism dollars to the host economy to put unequivocal terms to the Australians and their SANZAR mates, the Lions committee have allowed the tour schedule to be squeezed out of shape, leaving their own team at a disadvantage. Not only that, but, incredibly, the Lions are paying financial compensation to the Aussies for playing a tour game in Hong Kong, despite the fact that Australia have traditionally  struggled to give the Lions sufficient competitive matches!
If that’s a sick joke, the cavalier attitude to the Lions by the Home Unions and the Premiership and Pro12 clubs almost trumps it. They ignore the fact that the Lions are legendary within British and Irish sport, inspiring generations of young players by not only playing a brilliant, swashbuckling brand of rugby, but also toppling the Southern Hemisphere giants on their own turf.
After all, why sort things out properly just because the one and only dedicated international touring side in the world will be celebrating their 125th anniversary next summer?  And who gives a stuff that the travelling army of up to 40,000 fans in replica red-shirts not only fill the Home Unions coffers, but those of the nations hosting the tour, with the South African economy getting a cash injection of an estimated $200m (£125m) in 2009?
The Lions returned from that tour having lost by the finest of margins to the Springboks, and it led to head coach Ian McGeechan making a firm recommendation in his post tour report that in future the Lions had to secure at least a fortnight’s preparation before leaving these shores. What has materialised does not get anywhere close to achieving what McGeechan asked for, with the Lions assembling as a full tour party only in their departure week, following the Aviva Premiership and Rabodirect Pro12 finals on May 25.
The upshot is that Gatland will have to rest the players involved in those finals and therefore, as he admitted on Tuesday, he will be unable to select from full strength for the line-up the following Saturday (June 1) when the Lions play the Barbarians in Hong Kong – a missionary game to repay commercial support and stimulate Asian interest in rugby – en route to the serious business in Australia.
The Barbarians side is unlikely to include any Super 15 players, or New Zealand, South African or Argentine internationals preparing for their own summer tour matches. With players involved in the semi-finals or final of the French Championship also out of bounds, that leaves old and new SANZAR ‘names’, such as Sonny Bill Williams, Jaque Fourie and Fourie du Preez, contracted to Japanese clubs, along with Premiership and Top 14 guns for hire.
The Lions manager, Andy Irvine, suggested the Barbarians would ensure that, unlike the couple of recent drubbings the Baa-Baas have suffered, it will be a bristlingly competitive match. It needs to be in order to justify the Lions swapping important preparation time in Australia for a stop-over in Hong Kong, because, if it is not, it could come back to haunt the 2013 tourists.
The real rub, however, is the total failure of the suits responsible for running the British and Irish game to recognise the massive boost they receive from a successful Lions tour in terms of numbers tuning-in and turning-on to the game. Whether it’s the Premiership or the Pro12 clubs, the English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish Unions, the Six Nations committee and their ERC counterparts, the reality is that a victorious Lions team generates huge public interest, and they have all done the 2013 tourists a potentially damaging disservice by refusing to make the minor adjustments to the season structure to help them prepare to win.
There is no flexibility in this season’s schedule for it being a Lions tour year despite the LV=Cup, an inadequate competition still lacking a genuinely competitive format, holding down six weekends of action for the English clubs and Welsh regions in the middle of the season (two in November, one each in January and February, and two in March). The Pro12, meanwhile, has awarded itself four of those weekends off rather than giving the Lions some breathing space.
The fact that John Feehan, who is the Lions chief executive as well as chief executive of the Pro12, has been unable to wield any influence to change it is also a sign of how badly the Lions are hamstrung by conflicting interests.
Where there’s a will there’s a way, and the Pro12 and Premiership finals could have been played on May 10/11 through the Premiership clubs negotiating with the sponsors to play one round of the LV=Cup in midweek under floodlights, and the Pro12 using one of their spare weekends to bring their schedule forward.
If those adjustments had been made the Lions would have had all their players available, bar a few French Championship absentees, after the Heineken Cup final on May 18th, or even sooner – giving them a fortnight’s preparation before playing the Barbarians.
Instead, Gatland has to make the best of a bad job. Being a ‘Can-Do’ character he did not dwell on the pitfalls, but the Lions coach could not hide his reservations either:
“I’ve never coached a team on such a short time frame. It’s not ideal, and that’s why I won’t get too hung up on (the results) of the first two or three games in Australia. There will be mixing and matching, keeping the players guessing – it’ll be a bit messy, but we know what the situation is and we’ll move on. But there could be half the squad ruled out (of assembling) by those two finals. I’m aware of the hazards of that.”
Gatland also took the opportunity to fire a couple of darts at Australian Rugby Union chief executive, John O’Neill, who has a reputation as an arch-manipulator. Alluding to the appointment of Bryce Lawrence as referee for the 2011 World Cup quarter-final between Australia and South Africa, and the huge outcry that followed the Wallaby win with the Kiwi official accused by South Africans of extreme bias, Gatland said:
“The Aussies are masters at it – John O’Neill is a master of influencing things – the Australia v South Africa quarter-final was a masterstroke. After Ireland beat Australia in the pool game complaints were made about the referee, and that had an impact on the quarter-final. O’Neill is a master at what he does, and we have to be aware behind the scenes of what goes on.”
So far, O’Neill has played his hand far better than the begrudging Premiership and Pro 12 mandarins, and the Home Unions committee, but at least Gatland has his measure – as well as no illusions about the task he faces. For example, he made it clear that the Lions will fight their corner on the refereeing appointments for the series.
The upside is that, unlike the Home Unions suits, Gatland will not allow himself, or his team, to be  pushed around from pillar to post. And, given the disadvanatges he starts with,his hard-headed, phlegmatic approach is exactly what is required  if the 2013 Lions are to arrest a losing run of three successive series.

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