Tuesday, April 21, 2009

O'Connell's Steam Engine: Emulating McBride in South Africa

Lions coach Ian McGeechan sprung more than one surprise when he named his thirty-seven man panel for the upcoming tour to South Africa at Heathrow this morning.

There are fourteen Irishmen on the squad, more than Ireland have ever had before, and Paul O’Connell has been named captain. It’s thirty-five years since O’Connell’s legendary predecessor for the Lions and Ireland, Ballymena’s Willie John McBride, captained the most successful Lions tour of all time, also in South Africa, in 1974. History repeating would be very welcome indeed.

The biggest shocks in McGeechan’s panel are the naming of two men who had no part at all in Ireland’s Grand Slam win, Limerick’s Keith Earls and Tipperary’s Alan Quinlan, but it would be the bitter, bitter heart that would begrudge either man his moment.

Both men are at opposite ends of the their careers, Earls just starting out but the son of a father whom many consider would have played many times for Ireland had he not made the crucial mistake of being born on the wrong side of the tracks, and the stalwart Quinlan, who has been so often left out of Ireland selections for so long. Many glasses will be raised to those men tonight, and I hope the porter is sweet.

McGeechan’s selection of O’Connell as his captain, and such flinty forwards as Quinlan and England’s Simon Shaw, would indicate that McGeehan has no intention of letting the side get bullied in the trenches by Die Bokke. It is unlikely that the infamous 99 call will be heard on the high veldt this time around, but its spirit remains.

One of the many heartening things about the upcoming tour is the return to traditional Lions virtues after the all-too-predictable horrors of New Zealand in 2005. Sir Clive brought 45 players four years ago but clearly had decided his starting XV long before they set foot in New Zealand. The rest were only ever window dressing.

McGeehan seems much more likely to let the team evolve in the six games before the first test in Durban on June 20th. Someone once described Lions tours as a cross between a school tour and a medieval crusade; if McGeehan and co can capture that buccaneering spirit than the chances are good for a record third win in South Africa against the two time and reigning World Champion Springboks.

Ironically, considering the rich history of the Lions at half-back, it is at the pivot that the Lions will be most vulnerable. Mike Phillips is the most likely contender to wear 9, and a man who cannot but remind the Springboks of their own Joost van der Westhuizen in stature and attitude, but it is hard not to be nervous looking at the back up options. Twelve years ago Matt Dawson came from nowhere to become one of the stars of the tour in the best Lions tradition; could Tomás O’Leary or Harry Ellis step up to the same degree if anything happens to Phillips?

The Lions biggest concern is at out-half. Steven Jones and Ronan O’Gara are seasoned professionals playing a professional game but, compared to the great Lions 10s of the past, Campbell, Bennett, the immortal, imperious Barry John, Kyle and Morgan of the fifties – well, it’s hard to see them quite matching up. Once the forwards have gone toe to toe with Bakkies Botha and won the ball off him, there is still then the question of what to do with the thing. The Lions have always been about running rugby; everybody plays a variation of total rugby football now, but it would be a shame if the Lions were to lose that cavalier spirit that made the jersey so famous, even though they only ever won three tours in 27 attempts.

James Hook of Wales and Danny Cipriani of England were the up and coming men with the potential to come alive on a Lions tour, the single greatest stage in World rugby with all due respect to the French, but neither of them have made the cut. It’s a source of concern, but not one that undoes the daring selection of McGeehan or the flutter of anticipation at the prospect of the Lions taking on the Springboks under African skies. Roll on tour, roll on.

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