Maurice Chevalier had a point when he remarked that old age was not so bad when you considered the alternative. Had he thought of it, he might have said something similar about sporting retirement. Jason Leonard and David Young, who share six Lions tours and the best part of 150 Test caps as well as 65 years on this earth, can spend the rest of their lives watching rugby matches. Right now, they would rather continue playing in them, regardless of the views of those quill merchants who write them into front-row oblivion at the start of each new campaign.
Today, in a sun-kissed corner of a country that cherishes youth above all else, the venerable greybeards of the 2001 Lions will summon every last vestige of their hard-earned expertise in an effort to subdue an Australia A side charged with the task of eroding the vast edifice of self-belief the tourists have constructed for themselves during the first fortnight of their stay in Wallaby land. If they succeed, they can spend the next few days nursing the same ambition as everyone else in the party. Test places are still there to be won, and there is no reason why one or both should not rage successfully against the dying of the light.
At first glance, Young has been cast in the important role of midweek captain, while Leonard has been appointed chief "bench bunny" in acknowledgement of his ability to stoke the fires on either side of the scrum. But none of this is set in concrete. Concerns over the set-piece work at Ballymore last Saturday night one of the few negative aspects of an unexpectedly decisive 42-8 victory over the Queensland Reds mean that both men now detect the whiff of an opportunity.
In Leonard's case, a Test start against the Wallabies in Brisbane on Saturday week would signify a remarkable reversal in fortunes. Four years ago, he travelled to South Africa as the Lions' premier tight head, only to find himself marginalised by the smaller, craftier and wonderfully unorthodox Paul Wallace. It was a masterpiece of selection, as Leonard himself concedes. Uncomfortably aware that the Springboks were armed with Os du Randt, a formidable Afrikaner constructed on the same scale as Table Mountain, the Lions selectors realised that to scrummage straight would be to scrummage on the retreat. They needed kidology and one-upmanship as much as they needed muscle, and Wallace was and remains one of the great front-row confidence tricksters of his generation.
On this tour, the tactics at the sharp end are less complex. The Wallabies do not possess a Du Randt of their own; their props can look after themselves, but they are of the common or garden variety. "I think it is true to say that Australia do not make a virtue of their scrummaging in the way the Springboks do," Leonard agreed after being named in the side for today's game at the North Power Stadium in Gosford, a 90-minute drive from Sydney. "They have a good set-piece, don't get me wrong, but the challenge we face in that area is not the same as that in '97.
"The edge here is an internal one, simply because the players in this squad are setting new standards every time they play a game. Everyone is involved, everyone feels they have something to contribute towards the common goal. To my mind, that is the single most crucial aspect of a Lions tour. Once a group of players feel they are being pushed to one side or ignored, problems are not far around the corner. Those of us who toured New Zealand in 1993 learned that lesson and acted upon it in South Africa. I'm happy to say we are continuing down the same road on this occasion."
Leonard was as influential as anyone in forcing the 1993 series to the final Test. Having travelled as second loose head to Ireland's Nick Popplewell, he was switched to the tight head when the two Scots, Paul Burnell and Peter Wright, went missing in action. The move was successful beyond the wildest dreams of the coaching staff, but in the last analysis, the rubber was lost because the tour party became segregated, the midweek "dirt-trackers" disappearing from view in a mass sulk once the Test élite had been identified.
"I don't remember the situation seeming particularly destructive at the time, but looking back, the discontent was there in a bits and pieces kind of way," agreed Leonard. "The Test series was the be-all-and-end-all on that trip, and that message trickled down to the players in the midweek side. Basically, they did not believe they were being given the chance to show themselves, and when the management tried to tell them differently, there was a 'yeah, yeah, yeah' reaction.
"In '97, there were no separate teams. It was one squad, full stop. I think the performances on that tour proved that the managerial approach was completely valid. I've spent the whole trip on the replacements' bench so far, and like every other player, I'd rather start. But you are part of bigger things on a Lions trip; you are playing within a structure, as part of an overall plan of campaign. As long as you understand that and take the opportunities that come your way, you'll take a great deal from the experience."
Young has been banging a similar drum over the last couple of weeks, and the positive note from the tour elders is worth its weight in beer coupons. With so many first-time Lions on the trip and so few games in which to make the desired impression on Graham Henry and his fellow selectors, the slightest hint of disdain from on high could tear a player's self-confidence to shreds. Leonard and Young are doing their darnedest to ensure that does not happen, both by their performances on the pitch and their paternal encouragement off it. Should either of them make the Test side, it will be because they have stayed true to their standards and followed their own advice.Reuse content