Lions cannot rush search for coach
April 20, 2011
Sir Ian McGeechan coached the 2009 Lions © Getty Images
The coach for the next British & Irish Lions tour, to Australia in 2013, could be appointed as early as December this year according to Lions' chief executive, John Feehan.
The Lions board intend to assess potential candidates as soon as the Rugby World Cup is over - the final is on October 23rd - and, in recognition of the increasing demands, have apparently allocated a budget to pay a full-time head coach for the 18 month period leading up to the tour.
It all sounds very professional and, in some ways, a logical progression, but the whole concept of the Lions defies all logic and I believe that applies to the coaches as well as the players. In many ways these tours are an anachronism, but modern players appear to love the romance of them as much as we used to in the amateur era. The fans travel in droves, meaning that they are huge money-spinners for the host nations, so their future is guaranteed.
I believe you need to start from the concept that a Lions tour is unique in the modern game - they are the only international touring team left - and it requires a complete change of mindset. Putting together the cream from the four home unions and turning them into a team good enough to take on the southern hemisphere rugby powers in the space of a few weeks is the sort of challenge that demands very special qualities, and that goes for the manager and the coach as well as the players.
I have no problem with foreigners coaching the four home nations as individual countries - although I think they need to work harder in some cases to understand the cultural aspects of the job - but I do not believe they should ever be involved with the Lions.
In Australia in 2001 there was something wrong about Graham Henry being the main spokesman for the team. For me, the head coach has to be from one of the four countries to fully understand the politics and forge this new identity. The players have to buy into it if there is any chance of achieving the almost impossible.
Sir Ian McGeechan (as I must now call 'Geech') understood the job better than anybody I have ever met. The moment he took charge of a Lions team he was totally committed to creating this new team ethic, but he was also able to be passionate about the traditions of the Lions in a way that Henry, good man and good coach that he is, never could.
Carwyn James, our coach on the 1971 tour to New Zealand, never coached Wales. In some ways that was a help because he came with no baggage, but he too understood the importance of turning this group, many of whom had been at each other's throats just a couple of months before, into a proper team.
Sir Ian had said that 2009 - his fourth tour as head coach - was definitely his swansong but he has since taken over as director of rugby at Bath, so his appetite for the game has not diminished and there are rumours he may be reconsidering.
He acts as a consultant to the Lions and I thought he was the ideal candidate to finish his Lions career by becoming the next manager. However, Andy Irvine has already been appointed and that could possibly work against him. We would all like to believe politics no longer comes into such things but I am not sure the other countries would agree to a Scottish manager and coach.
If he is willing and free to take on the job it would make absolute sense to appoint him, and to do it as soon as possible, for one last campaign because nobody can match his qualifications. If he is not available - and his ambitious new boss at Bath might not be keen on a dual role - I believe there is a good case for holding back until a suitable candidate emerges.
"Ultimately, we recognise that we are in a professional era and you can't just drag a guy out for three months. We are going to have to look at it as a semi-permanent role…and try to have him for as long as we can to give him a better chance of success," Feehan said.
I am not sure that is necessarily right. If it means choosing somebody because he is available rather than the best man for the job it would be counter-productive.
Martin Johnson has been mentioned, for example. He has not yet proved himself, although his hybrid manager/coach role with England is good preparation for a Lions tour. I'm sure England will not want him to take a sabbatical if he does prove himself. As long as Geech and the manager get the itinerary right - and that is vitally important - I would prefer to wait for the right man to come into view as coach and that might not happen until 2013.
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