Gerry Thornley: Fewer midweek games could cause trouble in Lions camp

Non-Test games provided focus and hope; it afforded the ‘dirt-trackers’ a little self-respect

For those not picked in the first Test match-day 23, all the management will have as evidence of their form thereafter will be on the training ground. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

For those not picked in the first Test match-day 23, all the management will have as evidence of their form thereafter will be on the training ground. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Even without the devastating and distracting effects of the pandemic, even without the debilitating backdrop of vast, empty stands, even without living in bio-secure bubbles and even with the task of taking on the world champions, the 2021 British & Irish Lions expedition to South Africa was always going to be uniquely challenging.

The schedule ensured that much.

While English club owners have always demanded shorter Lions tours, for reasons that have never been fully or satisfactorily explained, the 2021 itinerary differed significantly from all its predecessors, even those in the professional era, in being trimmed to just eight matches. In effect, and breaking with all tradition, this translates into no midweek matches prior to the first, second or third Test.

While the absence of a midweek game before the third Test has been commonplace, there have always been matches in the weeks of the first and second Tests.

In fact, there were tour games in the weeks of all three Tests on the tours to South Africa in 1997 and New Zealand in 2005, and in the weeks of the second and third Tests in all other tours since the advent of professionalism.

Disconnect

Balancing the needs of the midweek and Saturday sides, all the more so during a Test series, has always been a tricky one, primarily in preventing a disconnect between the Test players and the so-called dirt-trackers. But without games in the weeks of the Tests the latter will have no need to get their knees dirty, except in training.

In stark contrast, back in 2013, in Australia, while none of the players in a depleted starting XV for the midweek defeat by the Brumbies featured in the first Test, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau both played in that game and the midweek win over the Rebels seven nights later as a springboard to playing in the second and third Tests.

Indeed the backrow against the Rebels of Dan Lydiate, O’Brien and Faletau would ultimately start the decisive third Test against the Wallabies in Sydney 11 days later. Similarly, Conor Murray started and starred against the Rebels as a precursor to playing the last half hour of both the second and third Tests.

Those midweek games against the Brumbies and the Rebels kept all of those players hungry and match-sharp as opposed to having no game time for two and a half weeks or, as could be the case on this tour, for three and a half weeks.

It was a similar story four years ago in New Zealand. Liam Williams and Elliot Daly started the 34-6 win over the Chiefs. Williams played the full 80 and Daly for 60 minutes. Two days later not only were they in the side for the first Test on the ensuing Saturday, they became ever presents in the series.

Jack Nowell, Courtney Lawes and CJ Stander also started that game as well as the 31-all draw with the Hurricanes a week later, and were called into the matchday squads for both the second Test (four days later) and third Test.

For the other 13 members of the squad who did not feature in the Test series, they had game time against the Chiefs and the Hurricanes – in most cases both matches.

It at least gave them something to do! A proper match against fired up, New Zealand super rugby franchises in full stadia.

Those midweek games provided focus and hope for all involved, a sense of being a real part of the tour, and it showed in the performances. Whatever about the defeat by the Brumbies, those wins over the Rebels eight years ago, and against the Chiefs four years ago as well as the draw with the Hurricanes, were mood-lifters for the Lions’ squad.

The matches against the Rebels and the Hurricanes especially were powerfully emotional occasions. In each game it was the last time those Lions players would ever play together as a unit, or anything like it.

It was a landmark occasion, a chance to sign off their tours, and in many cases their Lions careers, on a fitting note. It could act as a shot at redemption, especially for a midweek captain like Rory Best on his second and last tour, and perhaps even something of a marker for this tour four years later.

Those midweek games maintained an energy and a feel-good factor within the camp. It afforded those players a little self-respect. They could feel they’d done their bit for the overall tour and could applaud the Test players out of the dressing room the following Saturdays with meaning. And by performing with the pride of Lions they even put it up to their Test squadmates.

Hardest challenges

Viewed in that light, Thursday, July 14th looms as an even more significant landmark on this tour than would ordinarily be the case. Following the last of just two midweek games on this tour, against the South African A side in Cape Town the night before, that is the day Warren Gatland unveils the Lions’ starting XV and match-day 23 for the final Saturday game against the Stormers on July 17th.

For many not involved they might feel they’ve played their last Lions match on tour, and in many instances they might well be right. For those not picked in the first Test match-day 23 a week later, all the management will have as evidence of their form thereafter will be on the training ground.

One of the hardest challenges for the management is to maintain the dirt-trackers’ spirits and interest, and for the latter it is to feel fully part of the squad, and to convey that impression, to believe it as best they can, even when there are no more midweek games. In New Zealand in 2017, the dirt-trackers had 11 days between their last midweek game and the third Test. In South Africa, it will be 24.

What’s more, they can’t even go “off tour” and have a few midweek beers. Living in a bio-secure bubble will take care of that notion. You wouldn’t envy them.

There may be trouble ahead.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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