Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

Gavin Mairs: Davies can get the Lions roaring again

In these tough times, with the country heading into a recession and Ulster unable to buy a result, watching Gerald Davies in action, dispensing his duties as British and Irish Lions manager this week, lifted the soul.

The Welsh legend, a Lions tourist in 1968 to South Africa and most famously in 1971 for the series triumph against New Zealand, flew into Dublin on Wednesday for the official announcement of Ian McGeechan’s coaching ticket for the tour of South Africa next summer.

And although the location was set at the heart of Ireland’s banking sector in Grand Canal Square, any sense of doom was blown away by the upbeat and inspirational presence of Davies, who vowed not only to get the Lions winning again but also smiling again.

His pairing with McGeechan has yet to be tested by the rigours of a tour that promises to be equally as testing as the disastrous tour of New Zealand in 2005 and even more brutal.

But in the aftermath of the circus of Clive Woodward’s reign in the 3-0 whitewash by the All Blacks and the rather dour tour of Australia under Graham Henry in 2001 which ended up in a 2-1 defeat, the Welsh/Scottish partnership looks like the ideal antidote.

Both men are steeped in Lions history – McGeechan as a player in 1974 and 1977 and as head coach in 1989, 1993, 1997 and as an assistant to Woodward in 2005 – and both are committed to forging a Lions squad and ethos that will do the great touring sides of the past proud.

“I want the team to be winners, but you don't have to be solemn, miserable and sullen to be a winner,” said Davies, oozing a understated but inspirational charisma.

“I think you can be a smiling winner. I would like to create an atmosphere where they are happy, contented and like what they are doing.”

What Henry and Woodward failed to understand previously is that a happy squad is one in which each member feels he has a valuable role to play and has a fair crack of making the Test team. Encouragingly, McGeechan talked about the chemistry of the squad being vital if the Lions are to defeat the world champions.

He revealed he is prepared to take players not playing in their respective Six Nations starting XVs if he believes they will make good tourists in a part of the rugby world were character and resilience are priceless commodities.

McGeechan said everyone must have a crack at a starting place in the Test team, even though there are only three weeks between the Lions' first match, against a Highveld XV on May 30, and the first Test in Durban on June 20. “That is the raison d’etre of any sportsman,” Davies said. “He has to be allowed to prove that he is the best. Take away that hope, and you take away the main point of him being a sportsman.”

No doubt his words have also fired the hopes of the 50,000 Lions supporters expected to travel to South Africa next summer. Credit crunch? What credit crunch.

O’Connell is the man who can lead from the front

It may still be seven months away, but Lions fever is already in the air.

Speculation is already mounting over the captaincy, with Brian O’Driscoll an early pace-setter on the back of his spell-binding performance against Wasps and their Lions coaches Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards and the Leinster star’s decision to stay on as Ireland skipper this week.

McGeechan is still holding his cards close to his chest, insisting that only when his panel of 60 potential candidates is announced in January that his thoughts will turn to appointing a captain.

Form and injury will play major roles in the twists and turns before the final panel of around 35/36 is announced next May.

But my hunch is that even if O’Driscoll is waltzing again by then, he won’t be McGeechan’s man.

The wily Scot picked a complete wild card to lead the 1997 Lions, and it proved an inspired choice as the tourists went on to defeat the Springboks 2-1.

McGeechan’s essential criteria was two-fold. He wanted a player whose place was not in doubt and he wanted a player with the physical presence to command respect within his own team and to stand up to the intimidation of the Boks. Step forward Martin Johnson.

And the 2009 version? Paul O’Connell.

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