Ian McGeechan said it was all over and everyone believed him, his wife included. He probably believed it himself. But that was in July of last year, when emotions surrounding the narrowest of British and Irish Lions defeats in South Africa were still raw. Now, 15 months on, the man who has come to define Lions rugby in the modern era is very much in the thoughts of those who must choose a head coach for the 2013 trek to Australia – a trip that will begin in ground-breaking fashion with a game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.
Andy Irvine, the fine Scottish full-back who was confirmed yesterday as tour manager, acknowledged that his countryman had clearly signalled a desire to withdraw from the Lions' front line after two stints as a player, four as head coach and one as assistant coach. "But then," he added with a smile, "Ian said the same thing after three of his previous trips. He is back in touch with the game at professional level as performance director at Bath, he's a Lion to his core and his record speaks for itself. We have an open mind. If he rules himself out, I won't put him under any pressure. If he throws his hat in the ring, he'll certainly come under consideration."
If McGeechan is refusing to throw his hat anywhere just at the moment, he is not dismissing the notion of a return to Australia, where he masterminded a Test series victory in 1989. "I did think seven tours would be enough, that there should be chances for other people, but I'm very flattered," he remarked after being advised of Irvine's words. "I'll have to think, and I'll have to speak to Andy. I wouldn't want to say anything more at the moment."
Irvine and his closest colleagues, among them the newly appointed Lions chairman, Gerald Davies, are acutely aware of the difficulties of mounting a meaningful challenge in the southern hemisphere once every four years, given the congested international programme, the growing intensification of top-level club rugby and the increasingly debilitating effect of all this on the leading professional players. A tour of Wallaby country is never entirely straight forward – the 2001 Lions, perhaps the most gifted party in recent memory, failed to beat an Australian side well past their best – and for this reason, the board wants its next coach to spend at least 18 months devoting himself to the venture on a full-time basis.
That would mean the successful candidate taking up the reins immediately after next year's World Cup. Would the Welsh Rugby Union release Warren Gatland for such a stretch, given that it values its head coach highly enough to have made itself a hostage to fortune by extending his contract until 2015? Unlikely, at best.
Irvine stressed that he was starting with a "blank sheet of paper", but he indicated it would be difficult for any coach to take on the Lions job while heading up a national team.
On a wider issue, the manager said it would be "massively disrespectful" to the Argentines not to bring them on to the Lions roster in some form once the current deal with South Africa, New Zealand and Australia expires in 2017. There is little prospect of the Pumas having a tour all to themselves: for one thing, there is no domestic professional rugby to support a 10-match programme; for another, the existing Lions hosts would howl with anger if they found themselves on a 16-year cycle. But the South Americans will certainly be in line for a one-off Test in the summer of 2021.
Leaders of lions? the other candidates
Martin Johnson, England
Hardly a head coach of the tracksuited variety, but the red-rose manager led the Lions twice as a player. If England perform poorly at next year's World Cup, he will certainly be available.
Warren Gatland, Wales
The Lions hierarchy is wary of appointing a foreigner to the top job, but it considers the New Zealander to be "one of us". Part of the coaching team in South Africa last time out.
Andy Robinson, Scotland
A 24-carat Lion who toured as a flanker in 1989, and twice in the 2000s as an assistant coach. Many believe he will step down from his current post after the World Cup. A strong runner.
Declan Kidney, Ireland
He has a Grand Slam to his name, which only enhances his reputation, but his profile on the mainland remains low. Needs a big year with his national team to make his candidacy fly.Reuse content