Paul O’Connell: Lions hamstrung by taxing schedule
An extra week after the end of the season would have made all the difference
It’s never been like this. Never this hard, never this pressured, never this frantic. The Lions fly from Heathrow on Monday morning and just five days later they’ll have their first run-out against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians. Four days after that, it’s the Blues in Eden Park. No Lions team has ever had such minimal breathing space, such a helter-skelter schedule, so little time to come together. Such a bruised chance of success.
Paul O’Connell reckons that all things being equal, they’d have a right shot at a test series win against the All Blacks. But the way the tour has been configured, the relentless squeeze put on by the professional game’s unstoppable gravity, it all adds up to a virtually impossible task. He still gives them a chance but only just.
“I think it’s a shame that at a time when the Lions probably have their strongest squad in an awful long time, they have such a difficult schedule. It’s a real shame that they couldn’t have an extra week between the end of the season and the start of the tour. That would have been great for them. It’s hard to describe how important that would have been. But they do have a chance.
“New Zealand are so good and they’re so up for the Lions when they come. They’re not thinking of 3-0 when they come. They’re thinking of 10-0. That very first game, every single one is going to be a test match. I think they have a chance but it’s a slim chance.”
P O’Connell (Ireland, Munster)
This will be the first Lions tour without P O’Connell (Ireland, Munster) on the squad list since 2001. Back then, he was bewitched by the whole thing, devouring the Living With Lions video from 1997 on repeat, nose in old books on the tours of the 1970s.
He knew a Lions tour was hard going and he wanted every bit of it. And then he went to New Zealand in 2005 and realised he only thought he knew.
“That was when I learned a little of what it must be like to be English on tour. They don’t like the English as much as they like the Irish over there. You’d have a bit of sympathy for the English lads after it. The media went after us big time. We probably weren’t great with the media on that tour. We brought Alistair Campbell, who was a brilliant guy, but the media certainly didn’t like him – our media or theirs.
“But yeah, they were tough. That’s just the way it is for the English. Everywhere they tour, everyone just really, really wants to beat them. So it is different to touring with Ireland, very different.
“I remember being down in New Zealand in 2005 and there was an editor from a paper speaking on one of the rugby shows and he was saying he felt it was just as much his job to get at us as it was a New Zealand player’s job. And this is the editor of a newspaper! So that’s what you’re going into.”
He doesn’t miss it. Well, he does and he doesn’t. To be precise, he doesn’t miss playing. He got to act out half his life so far on a rugby pitch and when he finished up, he knew he was comfortably in credit. As a result, he’s not the type of ex-pro who watches a game with phantom muscle twitches, closing his eyes and seeing himself galloping around the paddock.
What he does miss though is something to impose on him a sense of direction. Something to go after like it’s the only thing that exists. A way to reduce the world around him to one piece of rock that needs to be chiselled and shaped and for nothing else to matter. He basically misses being in a gang.
“Yeah, I’m enjoying life,” he says. “But it’s not easy. The big thing that changes is you go from having one big purpose where you are thinking about it from the minute you get out of bed. You’re thinking about your fluid-intake and your breakfast and what you’re going to put in your lunchbox, what your training is going to be like, how much sleep you’re going to get when you come home. You’re on this mission, you know? That’s the thing I miss most.
“I don’t miss it. I was lucky enough to play until I was 35. I don’t miss playing. It’s just being on a mission. I watched the movie Spotlight a few months ago and I just remember thinking, they were on a mission. They were arriving in first thing in the morning when there was only two or three people there and they were leaving last thing at night, the last ones in the building. It’s all-consuming.
“I miss that part of it. That’s the challenge now – to find something similar.”
Maybe. Or maybe the challenge is to not need it?
“Yeah!” he says, surprised, as if the thought has never occurred to him before. “Maybe. That is an interesting way of looking at it. I would say that is a challenge – to allow yourself to be directionless. When you’ve been in it for as long as we have. It’s not an easy thing to do.
“I do some coaching with the academy, just a bit of part-time stuff. And I really do enjoy it. But it’s difficult and you’re kind of realising that if you want to be really, really good at this it’s going to be a huge journey that you’re undertaking. Because the knowledge is there but teaching people is a difficult thing.
“So if you decide to go for it, you can’t just half do it. it will be all-consuming again. I don’t know. I like all-consuming as well, you know?”
Well, yeah. O’Connell played on three Lions tours and was consumed by them all. The process of putting a squad together and building a team gets more difficult every time. There’s no room to go on the lash now, no time for personality defences to break down and players from different countries to really get to know each other. That matters.
“When you’re under pressure, the glue that can hold you together is the relationships that you have. And I believe in that. You might think it’s cheesy or old school or whatever but I believe in it. So much of rugby is doing crappy work, getting up off the ground, kick-chasing, not getting to tackle anyone, not getting to touch the ball, repeating it all time and time again, you have to want to do it for somebody or something other than yourself. That’s what the team bonding is for.
“You’re trying to create that in an environment where you’re not really going boozing together, where most people are on their phones when they get on a bus, where the matches are so high-pressure and highly-publicised and every move you make is watched. That’s very difficult to do on a Lions tour.
“And it’s going to be even more difficult here. The last time when we went away, we went to Hong Kong for a week. We managed to have a night out or two there. We trained in tough conditions in a place we had never been before so we got to get out and have a look around. We had a night out after we played the Barbarians. These guys are going to be playing their first match seven days after they take off. So they’re not going to have time to unwind and spend a bit of time together. It’s going to be a huge challenge for them.”
That’s before they call a single play, design a single backline move, hit a single ruck. The All Blacks play how they play – how they’ve been playing. For the Lions, getting personal relationships right isn’t even half the battle. Getting everyone on the same tactical page is a massive ask.
“In the last two tours, we tried to bed in a certain way of playing from day one,” O’Connell says. “We played the Welsh gameplan, which is a fairly simple gameplan and everyone knew it after two days. That’s one of the benefits of having Warren [Gatland] as coach and Rob Howley involved. When we played that gameplan, it was really easy to learn it quickly. Whereas other gameplans probably have a few more wrinkles in them and they take a bit more time to get used to, a few more ups and downs that you don’t really have the time for.
“The lineouts are a bit difficult. I think 2013 was probably the best because Graham Rowntree came in with a certain set of calls and said, ‘This is the way we’re doing it.’ It was very similar to the English way of doing it so you had Graham Rowntree coaching it but you had a group of English players there who were able to coach it as well.
“Whereas in the past with the lineouts, we had gone with a system that had tried to please everyone and ended up pleasing no one. We ended up with something that the coach couldn’t even coach because it was brand new and we were all finding our way with it, him at the same pace as us.
“So I thought that was a good thing out of Graham Rowntree, even though some of us struggled with it at the start. But it was because guys like Jeff Parling, Tom Youngs and these fellas helped us through it that it worked. They could have used it to their advantage, to give them an edge for selection because they knew it inside out. But they really coached us and helped people along to understand it.”
So much to do, such a non-existent timespan in which to get it done. That’s a Lions tour in 2017. Paul O’Connell will watch on, rapt as ever.
An ex-Lion. A Lion still.
Paul O'Connell was speaking on behalf of Standard Life Investments, principal partner of The British & Irish Lions and jersey sponsor of the 2017 Tour to New Zealand. For further information please visit thelions.standardlifeinvestments.com