British & Irish Lions
Davies set to recommend changes
July 8, 2009
Tour manager Gerald Davies sits between captain Paul O'Connell and head coach Ian McGeechan © AP
The final duty of every Lions manager is to prepare a full report on the tour for the Four Home Unions and, judging by our last conversation in South Africa, Gerald Davies will not be pulling any punches.
His first recommendation will be that his successor is appointed much earlier in the four year cycle - in fact the sooner the better.
I expressed surprise that the match itinerary was not more sympathetic to the Lions and was amazed when he told me he had had no input because it had all been settled before he was appointed.
He believes there was some discussion before it was finalised but could not tell me who had represented the Lions. He was clearly unhappy with the sequence of matches.
Presumably, Davies was appointed because he is now a proven administrator and was a distinguished Lion with experience of touring South Africa in 1968. I was on the same tour and, incredibly, it seems as if SARU dictate the match calendar as much now as they did then.
Our tour was far longer and it would have been quite possible to move gradually from sea level to the high veldt with the first two Tests at sea level and the last two at altitude acclimatising as we went but the South Africans deliberately moved us up and down just to make life difficult. We moaned but the SARB paid the bills so they had the final say.
This time the Lions had a couple of weeks at altitude then went down to Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban for the next two weeks and could not go back to altitude until the Wednesday before the second Test.
Fortunately, sports science has come a long way since 1968 and the players worst affected used masks whilst training at sea level which simulated the thin air they would have to encounter in Pretoria. The team also stayed in Cape Town until 20 hours before the match so their red blood cells at least started the game full of oxygen.
It was very noticeable that the Lions' energy levels were way down in the second-half in Pretoria and, although Paul O'Connell chose to blame the stop-start nature of the game, it looked as if they were short of puff.
Ever the diplomat (even with a friend of over 40 years) Davies conceded the match schedule was 'not ideal.' He would have undoubtedly liked to have had an input.
He also believes there should be at least two more matches. Ian McGeechan was true to his word and tried to give everybody a chance to stake a claim for a Test place but it is pretty well impossible with just 10 games - another couple might have made all the difference.
No objections from the host Unions to that one - more games mean more revenue from match receipts and tourism - but the Home Unions have to persuade the clubs and provinces, the primary employers of the players.
As long as the players are on-side - and they appear to embrace the Lions concept with as much enthusiasm as we did - it should be possible once every four years to end the domestic season a little earlier and give the top players an extra week before they report back.
After a series as intense and punishing as this one they certainly need rest more than a gruelling pre-season at their clubs.
The altitude problem is unique to South Africa but all the host nations have to play their part in ensuring the Lions play meaningful fixtures apart from the Tests.
Wrapping the Springboks' squad in cotton wool made a mockery of some of the provincial games and that short-changed everybody. The players needed a step-up as they prepared for the series but it was the fans I felt for most.
Following the Lions is now a very expensive business. Everything - from the tour operators to the memorabilia producers - requires a licence and the fans pay through the nose so they have a right to complain when the rugby - the reason they are there - does not live up to its billing.
That is especially true when ticket prices are pitched at levels that few of the locals can afford. They were asking more than double the price of a Super 14 match to see a shadow provincial XV play the Lions and the top prices for Test tickets were £10 more expensive than Twickenham - that in a country where living costs are about half of those in the UK. No wonder there were empty seats.
Supporters are loyal and devoted but they are not fools. Numbers were down and will be down more for the next one unless the Lions use their clout with the Australian Rugby Union to ensure every detail of the tour is right including fixtures.
But for all the complaints it was still one of the most compelling Test series I have ever seen - frighteningly physical but with plenty of tries too - great rugby.
The Lions will be kicking themselves; they had the chance to join the pantheon of great Lions teams and blew it but they came out and played wonderful rugby in the final test to give many fans their first experience of seeing the Lions win. That was enough to make many of them start saving for Australia in four years time.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com
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