McGeechan revels in fourth Lions challenge

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The Independent Online

Many details have already been finalised for next year's British and Irish Lions assault on South Africa, where the tourists will play 10 matches, three of them Tests, in the land of the reigning world champions. The Lions hierarchy have decided that each player should earn upwards of £30,000 each for his efforts – nice work if you can get it – and plan to travel with a normal-sized squad on a normal-sized plane, rather than take enough personnel to fill Thunderbird II, as Sir Clive Woodward did for the hapless 2005 contest in New Zealand. Oh, one other thing: Ian McGeechan will be in charge.

This is the happiest detail of all, for McGeechan is the one strategist fit to be mentioned in the same breath as the late Carwyn James, who, 37 years ago, led the Lions to a first series victory since 1904. McGeechan's appointment for a fourth tour of duty as head coach, to set alongside two as a player and one as an assistant coach, had been an open secret for some time, as is the interest in recruiting the Wales pairing of Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards in supporting roles, but such was the Scot's enthusiasm at yesterday's formal announcement in London, there was not even a hint of same old, same old.

"It seems the bad penny just keeps on turning up," he said with that boyish grin of his. "If I hadn't been coaching full-time at Wasps, I wouldn't have considered taking this on. But when I had another scent of Lions rugby as assistant coach three years ago, I realised how important it was to me. The Lions experience is special, it's unique, it's utterly incomparable to anything else you might do in this game. The Springboks are champions, just as they were the last time we went in '97, so we'll be playing three World Cup finals in as many weeks. It's the great challenge, isn't it?"

Certain challenges will present themselves before McGeechan starts piecing together his playing party, which will not exceed 36 – a significant reduction on the bloated 45-man squad selected by Woodward. The most pressing surrounds the fixture congestion at the end of next season's domestic programme, which currently sees the Lions playing their first game on the high veld on the same day as the Premiership final. Not even the most gifted players can be in two hemispheres at once.

McGeechan believes this conundrum will be solved sooner rather than later – "I really don't think it will be an issue come the end of the summer," he said – but the Lions are depending on the Rugby Football Union, who initially asked for the tour to be brought forward to its present slot in order to accommodate an 11-week close season for English players, to strike a deal with the elite professional clubs, who have no intention of freeing up time by abandoning their lucrative Premiership play-offs. The clubs may agree to ease the logjam by rescheduling a round of matches over the Christmas period. There again, they may not.

As the RFU has more urgent business on its agenda, not least a difficult round of talks with the Professional Rugby Players' Association over international contracts, a good deal of water is likely to pass under the bridge before agreement is reached. There is no sign of an imminent resolution to the pay discussions: the union has offered the Test contingent what amounts to a pay cut, and wants a greater proportion of the available money to be performance-linked, rather than appearance-linked. Unsurprisingly, the players' representatives are spitting tacks. While this local difficulty is not McGeechan's problem, prolonged discontent will inevitably impact on the Lions.

The pressures inherent in a 10-match Lions programme, as opposed to the 13-match programme in place when McGeechan led the successful red-shirted raid on Springbok country 11 years ago, are very definitely his problem. He will not have the luxury of watching his first-choice side emerge over the course of six or seven warm-up fixtures, yet he is conscious that by travelling with a Test team in mind, as Woodward did in 2005, he would run the risk of marginalising and alienating a sizeable chunk of his squad.

"We'll have to be very clear on the things we are looking for when we watch players ahead of the tour, and very clear about what we're seeing from them during the tour," the coach said. "Some players grow in a Lions context, and eventually show themselves to be Test match animals. The real pressure from the coaching perspective will be to keep thinking right the way through."

If England think they are on course to recruit Brian Smith, the London Irish director of rugby, as their attack coach, they have another thing coming. Smith still has a year left on his contract with the Exiles, and the club's board have refused Twickenham permission to approach their man.