One of Ireland’s top rugby journalists, Gerry Thornley, today wrote a piece in the Irish Times, suggesting that if Ireland, or indeed any of the home nations, wished to win the next World Cup, they should scrap the Lions.
“Wanna win a World Cup? Scrap the Lions. No chance. But just an idea.”
It is clear that if any Northern Hemisphere country is to capture the William Webb Ellis Trophy in Japan in four years time, serious structural changes will need to take place.
It is commendable to be thinking outside the box, and this certainly is just that. However, scrapping the Lions tour would only be detrimental to Ireland’s chances at rugby’s biggest stage.
Firstly he argues that the 2016 Six Nations will will “be conducted to the backdrop of the identity of the next Lions’ head coach”.
Of course it will, and what an exciting subplot this often turns out to be. Right now, it is on a knife-edge between Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt. Will this take away from this year’s tournament? No. But it will add to it no end.
Similarly, 2017’s championship will be full of personal battles. Who will lead the Lions at fly-half? The likes of Jonathan Sexton, Dan Biggar, George Ford, Owen Farrell, and Finn Russell will all be in contention. Again, will this change matters?
The famous 2009 Grand Slam decider at the Millennium Stadium was one of the classic Six Nations matches we have seen. The second test of that summer’s tour to South Africa saw 13 players start from Ireland and Wales. Did any sane Irish or Welsh rugby fan watching that game in Cardiff consider who was getting the upper hand from a Lions perspective throughout that second half?
Who was winning the personal duels between Lee Byrne and Rob Kearney, Stephen Jones and Ronan O’Gara, or Martyn Williams and David Wallace? It was all an interesting subplot, but to be honest, nobody gave a damn as Jones’ kick hung in the air from that final penalty.
Thornley goes on to note that it impedes on players, and indeed teams the following season, giving examples such as Brian O’Driscoll’s 2005 injury, and Wales’ form after 2013.
BOD’s injury was a malicious assault, which could have happened any time throughout the year. Of course, the background to Tana Umaga and Kevin Mealamu’s ‘tackle’ came from all the pre-match build-up, but this could in theory happen in any game.
In 2013/2014, Wales had a season which pretty much ended up like any other these past few years. In the Autumn internationals, they beat Argentina and Tonga, and lost to South Africa and Australia (in a humdinger). That is par for the course for the Welsh in recent times, considering they have only won four out of their 60 tests against the Southern Hemisphere’s big three since the dawn of the professional era.
In the Six Nations, they finished third. A heavy defeat in Dublin was followed by a comprehensive home win over the French and a narrow loss in Twickenham. It was no disaster.
Yes, none of the Welsh teams made the Pro 12 play-offs that season, but considering many of their top stars played in England and France, really how attributable is that to the Lions tour the previous summer?
Indeed what would the substitute for the Lions tour be? It could be assumed that each of the respective nations would tour the Southern Hemisphere regardless. As it stands, they embark on simultaneous tours, as Ireland faced USA and Canada in 2013. This serves as an ideal opportunity to give young players a chance to stake a claim in the absence of the Lions. Case and point, Robbie Henshaw made his debut against the United States that summer.
Ireland’s top players face off against the world’s best with the Lions, while the squad players are given a chance to impress against weaker nations, which should be happening anyway on a summer tour two years out of the big one.
Indeed, Thornley makes a valid point that one nation will be without their coach for a whole season of the World Cup cycle. He is dead right in pointing out this handicap. For Joe Schmidt to lose out on 12 months with his Ireland players would, of course, be a disadvantage come 2019.
However, it could be argued that under Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney, the Irish team appeared to grow stale listening to the same coach for too long, despite initial success. A different predominant voice in the changing room for a spell may be just what they need.
It is refreshing for such a radical notion as to abolish the Lions to be tabled in an attempt to improve Ireland’s chances for the next World Cup. The debate is certainly worthwhile, but in this writer’s mind, the Lions should be here to stay.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.
You can read the full article in the Irish Times here.