Ian McGeechan says season should facilitate Lions tour
Ex-Lions coach calls for a better balance between domestic and international game
Ian McGeechan: “It’s not about the Lions. It’s about what an international and domestic year should look like.” Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Former Scotland and Lions coach Ian McGeechan believes the commercial behemoth the Lions brand has now become demands that the rugby season should be constructed around the tour every four years.
The monstrous schedule leading up to the three Test matches in New Zealand will ensure a high attrition rate with injured Irish number 8 Jamie Heaslip putting the figure at around 10 players, or almost one quarter of the starting tour of 41, who will not make it to the end.
McGeechan declines to put a number on the returning injured but hopes the Pro 12 and Premiership teams can become part of a discussion that changes the domestic competition during a Lions year.
The current schedule has been labelled an anachronism, where the team must scale the foothills of Everest before a summit attempt at the end against the All Blacks.
Last year at a convention in Dublin, former coach Clive Woodward called it a schedule “that was not worked out by a coach”. McGeechan does not agree it is a museum piece but is adamant that it does need changing.
He contends that it is an event both the players and the public want but with some adjustment to the domestic season.
“There has to be a balance between the domestic season and the international season, which I don’t think is 100 per cent right at the moment,” says Mc Geechan. “Premiership rugby is talking about adding another month to their season. I think you have got to keep everything in perspective.
“Obviously you should plan the season where the Lions is part of it. You shouldn’t have to have a discussion every year... With the All Black jersey the Lions jersey is the biggest jersey in the world so it has some importance.
“No other team takes 30,000 [fans] 12,000 miles around the world. So there is something there worth keeping I think. If nobody had any interest in it then fine, it would work its way out of the system. But it is the number one supported team and it is the number one player team. It just needs some sensible thinking.
“There isn’t a jersey bigger,” he adds. “Adidas when they had it said it outsold Real Madrid in a Lions’ years. It was the biggest jersey that they had so it works. What doesn’t work at the moment is the soft planning before and recovery after.”
As a player in 1974 and 1977 and architect of several tours as coach between 1989 and 2009, McGeechan has seen how the event has mushroomed in size.
He does not like to call it a brand, although as a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name that appears to be exactly what it is.
But the player welfare issue seems blindingly apparent. The Premiership clubs want the Six Nations (five matches) to be condensed into five weeks from seven, which has been met with disapproval on this side of the water.
So, what of 10 matches including three Test games against the All Blacks condensed into a six-week window from Saturday June 3rd-July 8th.
“There should be good open discussions and financially things from which everyone benefits from the Lions,” says McGeechan.
“All their income comes through sponsorship. But because it is such a significant – I don’t like the word brand – badge people want to be associated with it so it has got to be taken seriously.
“If they [players] weren’t going on this one they would be going on an international tour anyway. It’s not an additional tour. It’s just a special one. So they’re not playing ten games, they’ll play maybe five or six. Some of them will only play a maximum of three games before the Test series.”
He says the team he believed would be the Test team at the beginning of the tour was far from the Test team that lined out towards the end. Player management, injury and individuals finding form changed all initial perceptions.
The great thing about the tour, and it’s where McGeechan learned the lessons, is there is no such thing as a midweek team until the Test team is picked. But, he adds, the organisers are trailing behind the needs of the players.
“It’s not about the Lions. It’s about what an international and domestic year should look like,” says McGeechan. “And in the professional game, the administrators are still catching up with that.”
*Former Lions Head Coach Ian McGeechan was in Dublin for the launch of the CocoFuzion100 new healthy drinks range. Follow @Fuzion100ire for further details.