Ian McGeechan may have been given a rough ride by Wasps over the last few days, but the most experienced Test coach in the world game confidently expected everything to the hunky-dory on the Lions front. He was wrong. When the popular Scot welcomed his South Africa tour party to the team base in Surrey yesterday, he quickly discovered he was short of a player. And not any old player either. The missing man was his fellow countryman Euan Murray, a hot favourite to anchor the British Isles scrum against the Springboks.
The tight-head prop stayed away on the orders of his club, Northampton, who play a European Challenge Cup final against Bourgoin this Friday and were not of a mind to reschedule their training on account of the Lions' sponsorship commitments.
"It's very disappointing," said Gerald Davies, the tour manager – a view repeated by John Feehan, the Lions chief executive, and McGeechan himself. "We're taking it up with the Rugby Football Union and I'm sure it will be an interesting conversation," Feehan added, darkly.
In truth, Murray was not missing anything vital: a squad photograph, a discussion on logistics, a get-to-know-you session with the other tourists. But Northampton's refusal to cooperate went down like a lead balloon with the Lions hierarchy and, given the strained relations between the RFU and the Premiership clubs, the argument may rumble on for a while yet.
Having decided against replacing the injured Cardiff Blues centre Tom Shanklin – news that will come as a blow to the in-form Delon Armitage of London Irish who must have been confident of a call-up – McGeechan has one last selection issue to ponder ahead of this weekend's flight to Johannesburg. Alan Quinlan, the Munster flanker currently serving a 12-week ban for gouging, will appeal against his suspension in Glasgow tomorrow, and if successful, may yet board the plane. "We have someone in mind as a replacement, but in fairness to Alan, we have to allow the process to complete itself before we make a final call," the coach said.
There was air of child-like excitement about McGeechan as he found himself in the thick of the Lions environment for this latest adventure – his fourth as head coach and his seventh in all. That excitement was tinged with relief that the Wasps trauma was pretty much over and done with. Abruptly removed from his post as the club's director of rugby last Thursday, he chose his words carefully but could not disguise his sense of hurt.
"I can't comment much because there are various things to be sorted out, and anyway, it's been full-on with the Lions these last few days," he said. "But to be honest, it makes no difference to me now. Things I can't deal with, people I can't deal with – it's all an irrelevance. Four weeks on Saturday, we'll be playing a Test match against the Springboks in Durban. Everything I do has to be geared towards getting this group up to speed for a very significant challenge."
Between now and Sunday, 29 of the 36 tourists will train together in Surrey and the teams for the first couple of matches – against a Royal XV in Rustenburg on 30 May and the Golden Lions in Johannesburg four days later – will be drawn from this group. Quinlan aside, the others have returned to their clubs ahead of this weekend's two European finals.
It means McGeechan cannot start work with the Leinster contingent – Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip – or the Leicester scrum-half Harry Ellis, all of whom will be involved in the Heineken Cup final at Murrayfield on Saturday. Murray is also off-limits for the time being. It may be safer for these particular players, however, for the Lions are planning a team-bonding sailing exercise on the Solent.
During the 1888 tour of Australia, the captain Bob Seddon also tried his hand on the water – and drowned.Reuse content