Hastings points to Leinster as Lions' guide
May 13, 2009
Former Lions skipper has pointed to lessons to be learned by the 2009 tourists © Getty Images
Former British and Irish Lions captain Gavin Hastings believes that Munster's exit from the Heineken Cup could prove to be a massive boost to this year's tourists and coach Ian McGeechan as they prepare for a taxing tour of South Africa.
Hastings, who won 61 caps and scored 667 points for Scotland, toured with the Lions twice under McGeechan's tutelage. In 1989 he played in all three Tests and kicked magnificently as the Lions claimed a series victory in Australia before being handed the captaincy on the controversial 1993 tour of New Zealand. With this year's skipper Paul O'Connell set to convene with his troops for the first time in Bagshot on Monday, Hastings believes that taking some positives from defeat will stand the Munster man and his Lions in good stead.
O'Connell was powerless to stop his Munster side being overrun 25-6 in the Heineken Cup semi-final by a rampant Leinster in front of over 82,000 at Croke Park on May 2, and will now be wholly focused on his task as leader of the Lions and in possession of the vast majority of his squad after Cardiff's exit from the tournament.
"At the end of the day he will be looking forward to the squad coming together," said Hastings. "Given the result of a couple of weeks ago where Leinster against all the odds overcame Munster, clearly Geech will be very pleased as potentially 14 of them could be involved in the Heineken Cup final, there's only five now involved.
"From a Munster perspective they can concentrate purely on the Lions. Paul will do his very best to gather the guys around him and lay down a few rules in terms of time keeping and commitment. The players should have some time off as well, at the end of a long, hard season. They just need to be honing their fitness and adhering to a game plan that Geech and his coaching team thing will be good enough to beat the world champions."
The squad's reliance on Munster's ethic may have been given a dent by their provincial rivals, but there is a good example to be followed from the game according to Hastings.
"It shows in sport that the underdog can prevail," he said. "The Lions are underdogs going down to South Africa. If you need to take a leaf out of anything, take a leaf out of Leinster's book. That's what makes sport so compelling, you cannot write the Lions off before a game has been played."
Lions tours traditionally can be a minefield of injury and lost form, with O'Connell's squad having already felt the influence of both before their first meeting. Munster scrum-half Tomas O'Leary and Cardiff centre Tom Shanklin have already had their tours ended by a broken ankle and dislocated shoulder respectively, while Munster's touring contingent was cut further when flanker Alan Quinlan was banned for 12 weeks by an ERC disciplinary panel for making contact with the eyes of Leinster skipper Leo Cullen.
Another worry for the Lions emanated in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, namely the manner in which the Leinster back-row, particularly in the form of Wallaby blindside Rocky Elsom, railroaded Lions prospective Test fly-half Ronan O'Gara. Hastings dismissed fears over O'Gara's temperament and set out a stern warning for players worrying about injuries.
"Everyone can have a poor game. These players have not become bad players overnight. It was an inspired performance from Leinster and Rocky Elsom was a giant among many giants," said Hastings. "If players are worried about getting an injury, they are going to get injured. That's the bottom line. All of a sudden it's full steam ahead, I'd tell every one of them not to even think about getting injured because that's when you will get injured."
One player to have profited from an injury absence is Scotland skipper Mike Blair, who has overcome some poor Six Nations form to find himself in the squad as O'Leary's replacement. Blair, tipped by many as a Test certainty at the start of the season, will now compete with Welsh powerhouse Mike Phillips and boisterous England No.9 Harry Ellis for the Test berth.
"He'll bring a tremendous difference and contrast to the other two scrum-halves in the party," said Hastings of Blair. "Mike is a man who plays his rugby on top of the ground, I think he's very, very sharp. The fast grounds of South Africa will really suit him and I do believe that the way things have worked out will give the Lions a much better option at scrum-half. Mike Blair could be challenging very, very strongly for a Test position."
Hastings is positive that any late call-ups will be given equal chance to establish themselves as contenders for a Test place, with Clive Woodward's pre-conceived Test side in 2005 serving as a telling reminder to the coaching staff.
"I think that the Lions have come unstuck in that respect before," said Hastings. "There is always room for someone to come from nowhere to get in. I think Geech has publicly stated that every position is up for grabs and that every player will have an opportunity to get in the Test side. We've seen them go down that route disastrously four years ago and Ian McGeechan will not make the same mistake twice."
Gavin Hastings is an HSBC ambassador. HSBC, the Principal Partner of the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa, is committed to grass roots with the world's largest Rugby Festivals programme. For more information - www.lionsrugby.com
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