Not going on a Lions tour is a substantial miss on the CV of any international rugby player
I agree, it’s unusual to be addressing next week’s column before I start this one. There’s a good reason — a better one than having hours in hand at Orly Airport, awaiting a flight to Perpignan.
By this day week, Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions squad announcement for New Zealand will have brought guessing and the second-guessing on his squad to a halt. At least for some.
For others, especially those preparing for Champions Cup semi-finals next weekend, it may prove a shattering and unfortunate intrusion into their focus. Such is the way of these things.
There will be Irish players involved in the two PRO12 derbies tomorrow wondering if they can do something that squeezes them into Warren’s squad, and pushes someone else out.
If I asked any of the players who are marginal Lions calls whether they are more concerned with winning their club game this weekend or doing enough personally to get into the squad for New Zealand, the truthful ones will admit their selfishness. It’s the biggest gig in representative rugby, it comes around every four years and this time it’s the All Blacks in New Zealand. If they are not thinking ‘what do I have to do to make the squad’, there’s something wrong. Rassie Erasmus and Leo Cullen may have a job on their hands picking one or two of their charges off the floor next Thursday. The timing is unfortunate.
I got selected for three tours and greeted my inclusion differently in 2001 to the subsequent two. I got a wrinkle the night before that I would be named for Australia 16 years ago. It was really late, but I drove over to my parents’ house and started banging on their bedroom window when I heard. They thought I was a burglar.
In 2005 and 2009, I went for extra kicking practice to avoid hearing the announcement live.
Not going on a Lions tour is a substantial miss on the CV of any international rugby player. I was not selected at any stage to start a Test match. That was really disappointing, but in terms of putting myself in the way of having a shot, I did what I could. The 2009 exclusion for Wales’s Stephen Jones is a decision I will always argue. I’d won Heineken Cups in 2006 and 2008, but Munster lost that 2009 semi-final to Leinster in Dublin, bad timing for me when it came down to a 50-50 call by the Wales coach on me versus the Wales out-half.
New Zealand tours are that bit richer in texture than the others. Forget 2005, it was shambolic from beginning to end. This one will be different and more demanding in every way than the series success in Australia four years ago. The Lions defeated an incredibly poor Wallaby outfit in 2013, with James O’Connor at out-half. Think about that.
The nature of these things means that the omissions will garner more headlines than the 38-man touring party. For those who get on tour, the joys and disappointments come thick and fast, but they are quickly reminded they are there — and that there was another poor fella on the wrong end of that 50-50 squad call who is sitting at home watching on television.
My bolter is still Chris Ashton. He’s a good man to score tries in big games and you can’t buy that if you’re Warren Gatland.
Virtually everything Erasmus and Cullen have done since the European quarter-final wins has been framed by April 22. Schedules, game-time, workloads have all been calculated by the point of reference that is Champions Cup semi-final. Nothing ever goes perfectly. It’s not ideal for your out-half to have an HIA two weeks out, and ordinarily, Tyler Bleyendaal would play against Ulster tomorrow (and maybe he still will). But so important has the New Zealand No. 10 become to his team (it’s almost scary to consider him not starting against Saracens) that he will go cold into the Aviva semi if he has to. This is the time proper players seem taller. The ground is changing, it’s the championship months when you get that pep in your step, when medals are decided. There are leaders coming to the fore in training, and driving the week, driving the video sessions. Taking ownership of the whole thing.
CJ Stander is reportedly a doubt, and Munster may have no choice but to go into the semi-final without him. However it’s not the game, and Saracens isn’t the opponent you want to be losing him for. They have a lot of ball-carriers and they’re going to have to be met head on. Stander needs to negate what they do. He is also a dynamic weapon with the ball. The South African missed the arm wrestle with Glasgow last Saturday and it’s hardly a coincidence that openings and holes were few and far between — 10-7 for a PRO12 game is a very strange score.
Nigel Owens had a few interesting observations to make during the game. Entertaining, one might say, unless you are the player on the receiving end. He was a very good referee when I played and his graph has continued north. He is an incredibly good official who might have achieved celebrity status without ever venturing into the world of social media and chat shows and guest-speaking engagements. But he has. Now he is a celebrity referee, officiating at the highest level. Is there any other referee in the world doing that?
Tomorrow week, the day Munster play Saracens, Racing 92 will be meeting Montpellier in a Top 14 tie rescheduled over the aborted amalgamation talks between Racing and Stade Francais. The reason we are in Perpignan is a short camp to prepare for Toulouse this weekend. It’s amazing when you are in your own little bubble, how little the Champions Cup semis can mean to someone who once lived and breathed by them.
The goal is to secure a top six berth. Racing getting to another Top 14 final isn’t on anyone’s radar at the moment, but if we make the knockouts, we have players, championship players. The ones that possess the mental steel for the big occasion.
One such was Mike Phillips, who announced his retirement this week. I played with him, played against him and coached him here in Paris. I roomed with him. Once in Pennyhill Park Hotel, prior to a Lions tour, he produced a framed picture of his girlfriend and himself for the bedside locker.
They’d been together all of three weeks and he figured it to be the most natural thing in the world! He’s a great competitor though. Narky out, but great craic after the battle.