Keo, in his weekly Business Day newspaper column, questions the Welsh and Irish unity as touring Lions.
Ireland’s Paul O’Connell came to South Africa with a big reputation in 2004. As did his team. They were the best of the home unions and they talked one heck of a game. O’Connell, according to the northern hemisphere’s print cheerleaders, was the best lock in the world.
Then came the first Test in Bloemfontein and the small matter of Bakkies Botha. The Irish got smashed and O’Connell, ever since, has always been more of a pretender than a prince. He may be an icon at Munster and he may inspire in an Irish jumper when playing in Dublin. But away from home he has never been dominant and nothing will change when he again confronts the likes of Botha and Victor Matfield. The South Africa duo has always publicly given O’Connell the necessary praise, but privately they know they’ve got his number.
O’Connell is expected to be named captain of the British and Irish Lions tomorrow afternoon, which should tell you all you need to know about the outcome of the three-Test series.
O’Connell’s biggest challenge, though, won’t be Botha and Matfield. It will be convincing Welsh players expected to make the Test XV he is better than the Welsh locks not making the team.
The intrigue of any Lions tour is how quickly, if at all, the four home unions become a unified entity. In the amateur era the dominant home union would make up the bulk of the Lions first choice XV, but Graham Henry and Clive Woodward, as professional coaches of the Lions in Australia and in New Zealand, tried to judge players on their ability alone and mould a team, regardless of familiarity and nationality. It was a disaster.
Veteran Lions coach Ian McGeechan won’t be as naïve, but McGeechan also knows it is not as simple as looking to a dominant home nation and picking the core of that side because in the recent Six Nations there wasn’t such a thing as one side being obviously better than the other. Ireland won the competition, but they were a kick away from being beaten by Wales.
McGeechan’s best side is expected to come primarily from Irish and Welsh players, and finding the right balance could prove more daunting than any opposition game plan.
Firstly, McGeechan’s assistant coaches are the Welsh coaching trio of Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley. Gatland, a Kiwi, also coached Ireland in the late-90s, so you would think it would be an ideal situation. But it isn’t because Gatland, in the build-up to the Six Nations decider between Wales and Ireland, said Ireland did not have what it takes in big pressure moments. He also said the Welsh players hated the Irish more than any other and he had a few more unflattering things to say of the Irish, based on his own experience in Dublin. He later defended his comments as gamesmanship, but the Irish boys aren’t that gullible.
Now Gatland, with his Lions cap on, must convince everyone O’Connell and the other Irish players have what it takes to win in South Africa. Gatland must also trust an Irish captain to win those big pressure moments in South Africa and an Irish captain must trust a Welsh coach he knows doesn’t believe he has the bottle. As you can see it is complicated even before it begins, as this is a squad made up of different ideas, different accents and different cultures. What bonds these players is rugby, but the bond of rugby is never as strong as the tribal bond of nationality.
McGeechan already has annoyed Irish followers by referring to the touring squad as being from the British Isles. This is supposedly a tour of the British and Irish Lions, and if form were the rider in selection then a more accurate description of the squad announced tomorrow would be the Irish and British Lions.
Any Lions tour is as much a political gathering as it is a sporting get together. Politically, this is a squad divided by nationality and this division will be exacerbated by the choice of a captain who is not a supreme being.
O’Connell may be revered in Munster, but in this country’s he is just another big name who failed. He knows it. So does Gatland. And both know the other knows it. Expect a similar failure again – from O’Connell and from his divided tourists.