Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Hidden Irish gem Sean Lynch ready for the Welsh invasion

The first Welshmen will hit the Swan tomorrow lunchtime.

Only the slightest, thirstiest trickle at first. Then, slowly, that drip will become a red flood of lyrical, lilting voices, filling one of Dublin's most elegant and historic public houses to its brim.

On the corner of Aungier Street and York Street, the Swan Bar is thronged with a plethora of the city's classes, creeds and colours. It is truly one of Dublin's hidden gems, only rarely celebrated and thus all the more special.

A bit like its owner. If the Welsh are in time, they may get a chance to meet him. If not, they can always rest a glass beside his bronze bust.

For Sean Lynch -- winner of 17 Irish caps and part of the greatest Lions tour of all time -- rarely works the bar these days. He doesn't know whether it was the thousands of kegs or the thousands of scrums that did for him. "There'll be a good few of them arriving on Saturday," says Lynch of his regular Welsh visitors. "But, like ourselves, they don't really have as much money as before."

The chat will be as eager as ever, mind. Lynch, now in his 70th year, still courses the decision-making in the scrums with fervour, echoing peers who decry the lottery of the set-piece. The former tight-head particularly feels for loose-head Cian Healy.

"The Irish front-row has improved immeasurably and their technique has changed," says the unlikely hero of Carwyn James' unforgettable 1971 tour to New Zealand.

"We shouldn't be afraid of anybody out there. But it's in the hands of the referee. If you analyse the games, nobody really knows what's going on and it's up to the interpretation of the referee.

"The touch judge should have more of a say in it. It seems to me the referee decides a penalty. I often wonder, is it? Can you identify it? I can't. I suppose a scrum referee could happen.

"There have been some very strange decisions in my view. Cian Healy is being penalised for screwing the guy ahead of him, but they ping him for wrong binding or something. It's interpretation and it's not satisfactory. It depends how cute you are as well.

"It's not unknown for Cian to concede three penalties in a row and that shouldn't be the case. Maybe the referees don't like him. He's a very strong prop, very able and he's improved. He's fascinated me as an old front-rower and he's done really well."

Healy is already being mentioned as the starting loose-head on the 2015 Lions tour; he can only wish to attain even a fraction of the reputation attained by Lynch on the Willie John McBride-captained expedition of '71.

The Lions' historic series win on Kiwi soil changed the face of the sport forever. Lynch only got his opportunity due to injuries.

Against Canterbury, anarchy prevailed. Sandy Carmichael received a multiple fracture of the cheekbone. The other slated Test stating prop and Lynch's compatriot, Ray McLoughlin, broke his thumb trying to fight back.

Fergus Slattery had two teeth loosened by a punch and suffered concussion. Gareth Edwards was suckered by a rabbit punch from behind. At one stage, the referee called over captain John Dawes and said, "Right, that's enough. From now on, I watch the ball. Whatever else happens is up to you".

From this maelstrom emerged an entirely novel front-row: Lynch at tight-head and Scot Ian 'Mighty Mouse' McLauchlan, all five feet of him, on the other side of Englishman John Pullin.

Captain McBride hadn't won in nine previous Lions Tests and few gave them a chance as the series kicked off in Dunedin.

But few reckoned on a back-line fizzing with the magic of six Welsh geniuses and Mike Gibson. Lynch wasn't expected to be a hero, either. Edwards recalls how he once jumped from a wardrobe as his room-mate watched 'Dracula'; Lynch scattered in fright and ran down the street.

The Kiwi front-row didn't scare him, though. Asked how he dealt with such a formidable challenge, he says simply: "I just psyched myself up. Nobody ever gave me techniques; I had to develop them myself. We didn't have the technique these guys have nowadays.

"When we went out to New Zealand we were referred to as the second string. And yes, I suppose there were guys done in that Canterbury match, so be it. We soldiered on. We did well and won the series. That's all that counts.

"I'd no interest in running around with the ball. My job was to give it back to the best back-line in the world. Feed it out and let them do the rest.

"We knew where Barry John would kick the ball. He'd kick it on a sixpence. I knew without lifting my head where he'd land it and I'd speed to that breakdown."

Ireland may adopt a similar approach on Sunday, so one would think not much has changed in 40 years. Professionalism still wows Lynch though.

"God, I often regret when I think how much I could have helped my game if I had support like they have now. Not that I needed any help with my scrumming, but I could have perfected my game around the park more."

Although Lynch delighted in having the Welsh backs behind him in '71, the all-conquering John, Edwards, Williams, Davies, et al dominated the rest of the decade and Lynch failed to win in three jousts with them. The fixture still enthuses him.

"If we win on Sunday, we're playing in Paris and that could be a stepping stone for us. I think it's the most important game we've played for years."

In Dublin's teeming fair city this weekend, it will be difficult to find a sports fan to disagree with him.

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