Cronin warns of dirt-tracker disharmony

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The official book of the last Lions tour to New Zealand was titled So Close To Glory but it might have been known as The Perils Of The Dirt-trackers. Take it from one who knows: Damian Cronin, a member of the midweek team ritually slated ever since for going "off-tour" towards the end of the trip and undermining the Test side. "They're taking 45 players this time," said Cronin, "and not only is there a chance of them falling out, you've got a large management team who could easily fall out too. If you get that, the rot really will set in."

The official book of the last Lions tour to New Zealand was titled So Close To Glory but it might have been known as The Perils Of The Dirt-trackers. Take it from one who knows: Damian Cronin, a member of the midweek team ritually slated ever since for going "off-tour" towards the end of the trip and undermining the Test side. "They're taking 45 players this time," said Cronin, "and not only is there a chance of them falling out, you've got a large management team who could easily fall out too. If you get that, the rot really will set in."

Cronin won 45 caps during an 11-year career in Scotland's second row, sharing in the famous Grand Slam defeat of England in 1990. His recollection of New Zealand in 1993 is realistic and unrepentant. It carries a dollop of humour but also a warning of what lies ahead for Sir Clive Woodward and company.

"The worst thing on a Lions tour," said Cronin, "is when it dawns on you that you're going to be stuck in the midweek team. In my position I was competing with Wade Dooley, who had to leave the tour because his father passed away, and then they called Martin Johnson out. We had an English manager, Geoff Cooke, and assistant coach, Dick Best, so Ian McGeechan as a Scot may have been outnumbered in selection. My belief is that if two Scots, McGeechan and Jim Telfer, had been there as coaches, with Cooke as manager, it would have been different."

Cronin started well, on the winning side in his first four Lions matches against North Auckland, the Maori, Southland and Taranaki. He says he didn't play in his fifth, against Hawke's Bay, which is either a lapse of memory or an ironic reflection. It was the 10th tour fixture and it fell between the First and Second Tests.

By then the Lions' dirt-trackers were firmly established and not as publicly content with their lot as Donal Lenihan's "doughnuts" of 1989. A team captained by Stuart Barnes - who had lost out as Test fly-half to his great rival, Rob Andrew - and featuring four Scottish forwards plus a demoted Will Carling at centre were beaten by their unregarded provincial opponents, 29-17. Worse followed when a Carling-led team collapsed 38-10 to Waikato the following midweek, four days before the Lions lost the Third Test.

"Maybe I wasn't old enough to respect what other people expected of me as a Lion," said Cronin, now running an architectural reclamation business in Surrey and Somerset. "That's a fault I'm happy to accept, but I wouldn't change any part of that trip. It was a proper rugby tour, and I had a fantastic time with my £80-a-day expenses and plenty of free Steinlager in the fridge. We had six weeks in the nicest hotels in every stop and everybody wants to meet you, if you know what I mean.

"Brian Moore [of England] wrote in his book that I was hungry when I went to New Zealand, which he could tell by the amount of food I ate. Having little digs is fine, it's water off a duck's back to me. Brian was a great player but he played in the side that lost two Tests; I didn't. We had Barnes not being picked ahead of Andrew, and Carling not being captain instead of Gavin Hastings, and it was a recipe for disaster. Barnes was a flipping connoisseur of wine, the amount we got through at dinner-time."

At the final whistle of the series-clinching Test in 1974 the XV on the field turned spontaneously to the non-playing Lions in the grandstand and applauded them. In 1997, save the occasional training-ground punch-up, the Lions socialised solidly with the tour song "Wonderwall". Four years ago Colin Charvis reacted badly to the disillusionment of a top player who realises the Tests are beyond him. This year's Lions have two coaching teams to enable the midweek side to be looked after but if anything the dirt-trackers' fixtures are tougher, with Auckland at Eden Park looming between the climactic Second and Third Tests.

Cronin believes Woodward's "all for one" philosophy could easily backfire. "We had only 30 players then; now they have taken 45 guys with quite big egos on tour, and you want them both fighting for places and bonding as blokes. I assume that Clive is hoping the players are more professional than we were, they'll use team skills from a business management course and they should be told 'odd room numbers on that bus, even on this one', so no cliques develop. But how professional can you be?

"Clive needs to merit every player he's got quickly before it starts to get serious. Against Argentina they picked Michael Owen, a No 8 who looks to me like a second row, as captain at 24 years of age. Bad decision. If Clive is single-minded, why be swayed by wanting a Welshman as captain in Cardiff? Did McGeechan pick the side and Woodward pick the captain? We don't know.

"It's Woodward's way: he likes having a lot of people around him. Personally I think he's brought all the coaches on board so it's Eddie O'Sullivan's job to calm the Irish boys down, McGeechan's job with the Scots boys and so on. The English will be the worst. If they don't get picked, there'll be discord. It's no good throwing your toys out the pram like Matt Dawson did last time, going to the papers. The rivalry will be almost more interesting to watch than the Test matches."

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