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Return of the Gat

Garry DoyleOwain JonesJamie Lyall

With just weeks to the announcement of the Lions squad to tour South Africa, every piece of news is linked to the celebrated touring party and the stakes for the players vying for those places has never been higher. The weekend brought about many eye-catching performances as spring rugby took hold and tries rained in. It pointed towards sunnier climes but as ever in rugby, there is the spectre of the pandemic and rugby spats to sour the mood. Here’s what The XV made of it all…

Politiking striking a sour note

Rugby has long been blighted by self-interest but you’d think in the midst of a pandemic, unity and understanding would prevail. Not so, it seems, where the British & Irish Lions are concerned. 

This tour ought to be the very peak of the international game, yet it is being squeezed and crammed into ever-tighter spaces, with ever-decreasing access to players. It is a great shame that an exception was not made in what we are repeatedly reminded are unprecedented times and the whole feast moved back a year. 

Instead, rancour reigns. Unsurprisingly, Premiership Rugby are so far unwilling to lose players involved in their play-offs to a Lions training camp and warm-up Test against Japan, which takes place on the day of the league final. Unsurprisingly, Warren Gatland has hinted that those semi-finalists and finalists could miss out on the tour altogether. 

Gatland is an incredibly canny operator and these very public warnings have the look of a poker player bluffing about the aces in his hand. Would the coaches really not select a key player, who is good enough to have helped propel his team to a final, because he misses a couple of weeks’ training and a friendly? The Lions do not lack for options and cohesion on such a short tour will be vital, but it is hard to see Gatland omitting a player he wants purely because of this needless impasse. Yet it is equally grim that the same player could miss out on reaching the pinnacle of his career because those in charge of protecting the league’s interests will not let him go.

Most upsetting of all, if some peace is not brokered, is the scenario where a player should have to choose one or the other, that he cannot play in a monumental final for his club and also embark on the game’s greatest and most storied tour. It would not be the first time in a Lions year, but it should be the last.  

Level the playing field

Everything was perfectly set up. They were live on RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, prime time on Saturday afternoon. No meaningful sporting distractions were there to take the floating voter away. Ireland’s four provincial sides were on a down week. A week earlier, the team had demolished Wales. Confidence, they said was high.

They lost 56-15.

In his post-match analysis, Adam Griggs, coach of the Ireland women’s team, walked the tightrope between being upbeat and realistic. Two of France’s eight tries stemmed from the ball being ripped from Irish hands; the penalty count – Ireland getting pinged 20 times – was naively high. These are fixable issues, he said.

But one thing is beyond his or any coach’s capacity.

Ciara Griffin
The Ireland side cut dejected figures after a heavy loss to France (Photo by Sam Barnes/Getty Images)

France and England are semi-professional; the remaining four teams in the Six Nations are not. It shows in the scorelines. Between them, England and France have played four times in this championship, the aggregate score is 228-28 in their favour.

Unless things change structurally, we’ll be writing something similar next year and the year after and the one after that. Money doesn’t buy you everything in life but it does go a long way to determining sporting results. So it goes; a professional team will always beat an amateur one.

While this seems like a harsh time to be lecturing Unions on what to do – given how the pandemic has drained their finances cruelly – some context is also needed. If a Union are prepared to ask for government support in this time of crisis, then they must also respect the taxpayer. If they are going to accept money from venture capitalists, then again we need to see some of that income used to support the women’s game. 

Financing a semi-professional team is doable. It may require a one or two per cent hit on the salaries of the leading men’s players, with the redistribution of those savings doled out to fund an enhanced women’s programme. If so, it is a small price to pay.

Quins get back to basics

It has been a curious season for Harlequins. They have rode the rancour of their head coach, Paul Gustard, leaving in seemingly acrimonious circumstances and their most loyal servant, Mike Brown, departing under a cloud, yet their form has had a serious uptick since Gustard packed up from a not-so-happy camp in late January. Before he left, Quins were drifting in no-man’s land. A listless yo-yo side, who could lurch from a 33-3 shellacking from Exeter Chiefs to a near 50-point win over Northampton Saints, yet since his departure the shackles have come off and they’ve listed seven wins in 10 Premiership games to leave them in the play-off places.

Two of those losses were by a point to the Chiefs with the last play of the game, and similarly to Bristol Bears by two points. Watch the Quins players against Worcester Warriors at the weekend and they looked unburdened and happy to play a natural, flowing game. Brown, despite the off-field furore, is still playing quite magnificently; his old buddy Danny Care playing so well he has been mentioned in Lions dispatches, and similarly Joe Marler is flip-flopping between smiles and snarls as he tears into opposition front rows.

Alex Dombrandt
Alex Domdrandt is at the heart of the next generation of Harlequins (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

It’s not just the established names guiding the club back into the upper echelons of the league. In Alex Dombrandt, Marcus Smith and Will Evans, they have a trio from which to build the side around. All three were heavily involved in the club’s seven tries against a porous Worcester side and whoever takes over at The Stoop next season, despite the high-profile departures, will be heartened by the side’s accent on youth. 

High stakes suit Biggar

Dan Biggar was the only player in the 2013 Six Nations winning side not to tour with the Lions. Four years later, he was selected for the tour and, despite playing commendably, didn’t feature in a minute of the Test series. With just 17 days to the naming of the squad, Biggar is once again vulnerable to the selection gods. Four high-quality No10s do not go into the three tour places said to be available.

Each pivot has his share of lobbyists; Owen Farrell as England captain and two-time tourist is seen as indispensable, even if his form has wavered; Johnny Sexton, despite his advancing years and brittle body (he turns 36 in July), is raging against the dying light, while Finn Russell is a crowd-pleaser who excites the neutral.

Dan Biggar
Dan Biggar is playing as a well as any fly-half in Lions contention (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Yet at 31 and with 90 caps to his name, Biggar is relatively underrated and also playing as well as he ever has done. A fundamental cog to Wales unexpectedly winning the Six Nations, he has carried on his form with Northampton Saints. On Friday night against London Irish, he slotted 14 points from the tee and marshalled a firing Saints backline expertly. All around him, youth abounds. Alex Mitchell is thriving as his half-back partner and being thrust forward as a solution to England’s troublesome No9 selection; Fraser Dingwall is thriving, while Ollie Sleightholme can’t stop scoring.

Biggar is often lazily dismissed as a fly-half unable to get the backline going but that is harsh and dismisses his other talents of a robust defence, brilliant aerial game and a varied array of kicks. As he once told this writer: “It’s not always about the fancy stuff, sometimes it’s about knuckling down and being a winner.” Biggar couldn’t be doing more to press his case.

Hands up for the Irish Lions starters

Bolter noun

Definition: one that bolts or Irish players on Lions tours.

There was Paul Wallace and Jeremy Davidson in ’97; Rob Henderson in 2001; Simon Easterby in ’05; Rob Kearney in ’09, and then, in 2017, Peter O’Mahony – players who came from nowhere to be surprise Test starters on those respective Lions tours. O’Mahony, remember, couldn’t get a game in the 2017 Six Nations until Jamie Heaslip went down injured in the warm-up; he ended up captaining the Lions in the series opener.

Who will emerge from the pack this time? 

You can take your pick from nine or 10. Ireland and the Lions has always been a happy marriage. For years, when the national team routinely stank the place out – going from 1948 to 2009 without a Grand Slam; going forever without reaching a World Cup semi-final – the Lions was a sanctuary. Our best went up against the southern hemisphere’s best and didn’t embarrass anyone.

Better yet, they thrived. Willie John McBride is considered one of the greatest Lions captains of all; Fergus Slattery excelled in the 1970s; Nick Popplewell in the 1990s, later Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll in the Noughties.

Tadhg Furlong
Popular thinking has Tadhg Furlong as Ireland’s only Test starter but could there be more? (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

But this time? With competition for places in the squad – never mind the team – deeper than any other tour in memory, there is a real possibility of Ireland providing several members of the match-day 23 but potentially just one of the starting XV, their lowest number since the 1993 series in New Zealand.

History has shown that can change. Injuries and the vagaries of form have messed up many a coach’s plans on previous trips – think back to how the 1989 series turned on the back of Sir Ian McGeechan making five changes after the first Test disaster. But right now which Irish players are nailed on starters? Tadhg Furlong is one. And eh, that’s it.

Many others are genuine contenders: Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Conor Murray, Sexton, Robbie Henshaw – especially Henshaw – even Garry Ringrose if he gets fit. Others, Hugo Keenan and Andrew Porter, may be picked as dirt-trackers. The only certainty is that Irish players will enter the discussion for almost every position – bar the wings – on this trip. Don’t be overly shocked, though, if Furlong is the solitary starter. 

Hard to spot gold at the end of the Rainbow

At best, it looked ambitious. At worst, it was a forlorn plan doomed to failure. Launching a cross-border competition in the present climate was a gutsy move by the Pro14, particularly since the newest and most prestigious entrants come from South Africa, a nation with scant infrastructure, no vaccines administered and a much-feared new variant of Covid-19.  

The Rainbow Cup is a decent idea, yielding more cash, status and eyeballs to the Pro14, but the practicalities are a different matter entirely. Latest reports indicate that the UK government have blocked the South African sides from basing themselves in Bristol and commuting to their matches against Celtic opposition. The Pro14 are said to be pursuing other options – you would imagine several contingency plans were drawn up – but it is no shock to see the tournament jeopardised in such difficult circumstances. 

What is grim is that the tournament begins in five days, and there is still no concrete indication that it will go ahead with its Springbok-laden franchises – its entire raison d’etre – involved. The first three rounds largely involve derby fixtures and buy the organisers a few more weeks of precious time, but a swift solution is needed. 

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