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McGeechan at fault for series loss
Stephen Nell
July 7, 2009

Ian McGeechan's achievements over the years demanded that he got a stylish send-off as he brought down the curtain on his coaching career with the British & Irish Lions.

He certainly got that as his Lions side thumped the world champion Springboks 28-9 in their own back yard on Saturday. The fact that it was the same scoreline with which the Lions beat South Africa at Loftus Versfeld back in 1974 - a game in which McGeechan played - should not be lost on us.

I covered the tour from the Lions camp for the South African media and I certainly got to respect McGeechan. Apart from obviously being a competent coach, Geech just comes across as such a nice guy.

That must also be one of the reasons why he was spared the media's vitriol for some significant mistakes that led to his side's downfall in the series. The first of these must surely be his appointment of Paul O'Connell - an average international lock - as captain.

What exactly was Willie John McBride thinking when he said that O'Connell would "boss" Victor Matfield? It was a mistake of note by the former Lions skipper. It's the kind of statement that serves as motivational fodder for South African players. The game is not won in newspapers, but on the field.

O'Connell, in any event, is not an awe-inspiring player. Comparatively, South Africa have two better No.5 locks in Matfield and Andries Bekker, and a couple of others of more or less the same quality.

To go and pair O'Connell with the lighter Welshman Alun-Wyn Jones for the first Test was sheer madness. Surely it is a fundamental principle of the game that locks hunt in pairs and that you don't employ two of the same variety?

Here in South Africa, at least, we believe that to be the case. You have an outside chance of "bossing" Matfield when Bakkies Botha is not around, but not with both on the field. Much has been made of Phil Vickery's struggles in the scrums against Tendai Mtawarira in the first Test. The man South Africans call 'The Beast' had not earned himself a reputation as a particularly fearful scrummager prior to this series. He is a youngster and exceptional in the loose.

But thanks to McGeechan's selection of Lee Mears at hooker - talk about pitting a boy against a man when he was picked to confront Bismarck du Plessis - and Jones at lock, 'Beast' suddenly is being hailed as the new Os du Randt!

Vickery is a class act as a player and a man. He showed that in the third Test when he had Simon Shaw backing him up and a bigger hooker by his side. Shaw was a colossus and it's indeed sad that he is 35 years old. Here was a man that stood his ground against Botha and earned enormous respect from the South African players and public, his dirty play in the third Test aside.

McGeechan, no doubt, made mistakes that potentially cost the Lions the series. But how far should we really go in criticising him? Some regard it as an achievement that the Lions came so close in the first place. McGeechan had been saddled with an enormous task - to mould a side capable of beating the world champions over a series of three Tests with just a few weeks' preparation.

In my humble view, the tour was simply too short and therefore was weighted against the Lions. South Africa's road to victory was simple - they simply had to stick to more or less the same side that has served them well and pick up from where they left off.

I disagree with McGeechan's view that the Lions are, in many people's eyes, "stronger than ever". They have lost 7 of their last 9 Tests and that points to problems for the concept in the professional era. We need a fair contest, irrespective of the fact that it still works from an economic perspective, because the paying public deserve that. If it means giving the Lions more time to prepare and more games, so be it.

Regarding the tour, there has been much comment about stadiums not being full. Well, frankly I am glad the South African public gave those selling the tickets a two-fingered salute. The issue is not simply the fact that the Test tickets were ridiculously expensive, but that they were not priced for the South African market.

When details of ticket sales were first announced, our public was led to believe that Test tickets were not available. In other words, a massive party was being planned in our back yards, to which we were effectively not invited. We only got our invitations when some were turned down by the British & Irish guests, no doubt concerned about the so-called credit crunch.

Newsflash, the South African economy is also in recession. One pound costs approximately R13 and the rand is said to be strong right now. The Lions of 2009 were never good enough to convince many South Africans that it's worth shelling out that kind of money to watch them, particularly when the public here were made to feel like second class citizens.

This matter also needs to be addressed as we look forward to 2021. In the meantime, all that remains is to wish Geech a happy retirement. And thank him for the part he played in crafting our revenge for 1997!

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