FORMER BRITISH AND Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan has urged current incumbent Warren Gatland to select players primarily on form, rather than their reputation.
Gatland is due to announce his squad for the forthcoming tour of Australia towards the end of next month and McGeechan, a veteran of several Lions tours as both player and coach, said it was vital the New Zealander’s party hit the ground running.
“You need to take fit players,” McGeechan, who had Gatland as an assistant coach during the Lions’ series loss to South Africa on their most recent tour in 2009, said. “With only a six-week preparation period you can’t have players carrying injuries or players out of form,” the Scottish rugby great added.
“That’s the big call for the coaches, picking fit players who are on form who can then come together, so you are working with what you want to do right from the word go with players doing every training session and available for games.
“You can’t find form and if you are injured you haven’t got the time. That’s been the mistake in the past, in that players who have not been in form or have been injured have gone because the coach thinks he’s the best player in the position based on reputation, not performance.
“I think the three months prior to the tour is the critical period.”
Gatland has been seconded to the Lions from his day job as Wales coach and although concerns have been expressed about a ‘foreigner’ taking charge of the combined side drawn from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales following the ill-fated stint of Graham Henry in Australia in 2001, McGeechan is convinced the Lions have got the right man for the job.
“When you are trying to put together a top-class, world-class Test team, if you have got that little bit of continuity you are away from first base straight away.
“I think Warren Gatland was the right appointment, he’s an outstanding coach but he also understands the Lions and has experience from 2009. So it will be lot of similar management people and maybe a third to a half of the players.
“You are not starting from scratch knowing you have five weeks to be Test match ready.”
The Lions have not won a series since triumphing in South Africa in 1997. In an era where professional clubs and national sides are ever more reluctant to have their star players take part in a gruelling series which can often leave them jaded the following season, McGeechan knows how much beating the Wallabies would mean to the Lions — and how hard that will be.
“You are playing southern hemisphere countries who take it all pretty seriously anyway, they have had years to put a team together,” he said. “They are bedded in and know what they are doing. The Lions have high-quality players but what you have to do is work out the best way of getting that talent to show in Test match conditions.
“Sometimes it’s about not over-complicating it, it’s being very clear and straightforward about what you want. The downside of 2009 is that we didn’t win the series. The upside was that we probably played the best rugby seen anywhere in the world that year, and in retrospect that’s something you get satisfaction from.
“Some of the combinations were fantastic – (Wales’) Jamie Roberts and (Ireland’s) Brian O’Driscoll were probably the best centre partnership in world rugby that year.”