One of the great challenges facing Warren Gatland and the Lions management ahead of the tour to Australia is the perennial one of team unity. Uniting a group of players from four countries is just the beginning of this exercise and normally the more straightforward part. Where it can get messy is when it becomes clear who will make the test team and those who are only making up the numbers.
The success of a number of Lions tours has been determined by the ability of the “dirt-trackers” to continue to be positive and supportive of the tour even when they know that, without serious injury to an incumbent, they are unlikely to be involved in the Test matches. An unhappy Lions squad is one which is unlikely to win a test series.
The 1989 tour of Australia led by Finlay Calder nearly went off the rails completely after the loss in the first test. The midweek team, however, pulled off a significant win in the game which followed, against ACT, and the test team responded by winning the remaining two tests and the series. Donal Lenihan’s “dirt-trackers” returned home unbeaten and in addition to providing opposition for the test team at training they helped get the tour back on track after the loss in the first test.
The management of the 1993 tour faced a similar problem after losing the first test to the All Blacks but unlike 1989, the midweek side did not respond in a positive manner. On establishing that they were not in contention for a test place, they decided to have some fun and not worry too much about rugby. They lost three of the final four games, and many who watched those performances said the players badly let the Lions jersey down. By going “off tour” they contributed to what effectively became a losing series.
In 2001, a number of players did not buy in to the Lions concept and despite a remarkable win in the first test against the Wallabies, the publication that day in the UK media of the tour diary of an unhappy player resulted in a very public airing of grievances within the squad.
Graham Henry and Donal Lenihan were always going to struggle to regain control of the squad after that setback. In his autobiography Matt Dawson stood by his criticism of the tour but regretted the timing. Henry too has acknowledged that he had got some aspects of the tour wrong, but those problems needed to be resolved behind closed doors and not in the national press.
The 2005 tour to New Zealand will probably go down as one of the most disappointing ever, where the Lions ethos appeared to be lost in a haze of public relations spin and recrimination. Under Ian McGeechan’s leadership the tour to South Africa in 2009 saw Lions values rejuvenated and while narrowly losing the test series, pride in the Lions jersey was restored.
This year there are also unity issues for the host team, with question marks over the Australian players’ support for coach Robbie Deans and his future in the job. It would appear that the succession plan is well in place with Ewen McKenzie poised to take over from Deans later this year.
It is good to see, however, that Deans appears to have restored the relationship with Quade Cooper and should be able to benefit from the experience of George Smith for the Lions series. If the Wallabies are to repeat the 2001 series win they cannot afford to unnecessarily lose any more key players.
Players on both sides know the significance of the test series that lies ahead. For most Wallabies it will be the only opportunity of their career to face one of the great touring teams in sport. For a number of the Lions squad it will be the final opportunity to be part of a winning tour.
The outcome of the series will depend on a number of factors but it’s likely that the coach who best manages the diverse characters and backgrounds of his players will ultimately be successful. Uniquely, for a Lions tour, neither coach is ‘indigenous’ to the team of which he has charge, raising the potential for cultural conflict.
There will be strong personalities and egos in both squads that will need to be managed. Who do you think is best equipped – Gatland or Deans?