Error of judgement
Stuart Barnes criticises Ian McGeechan's overlooking of Brian O'Driscoll as Lions captain.
Last Updated: 08/05/09 11:37am
As Brian O'Driscoll plucked the ball from the outstretched hands of Paul O'Connell and pumped his legs 70 metres or so to the unguarded Munster try line, two thoughts emerged instantaneously - that this scintillating Heineken Cup semi-final was well and truly over, and that Ian McGeechan had made a massive error, selecting the wrong man to lead the Lions to South Africa.
The symbolism of the split second between Ronan O'Gara's pass and O'Driscoll's interception admittedly magnified the thought but throughout the following week no cold logic dissuades me from believing the wrong man is leading the Lions.
The case for O'Driscoll was a powerful one before the match. It looks an unanswerable one in the wake of Munster's desolation. It was O'Driscoll, not O'Connell who led Ireland to Grand Slam glory. O'Driscoll has long been the leader of Ireland and it is him, not O'Connell who has nothing to prove to the Southern Hemisphere where Heineken Cup heroics mean little.
The centre is the finest British and Irish player of modern times, bar none. Had he been born English our government would have knighted him by now. He may have endured a miserable time on the previous Lions tour when a spear tackle ended his series prematurely but four years previously he had produced some of the finest back play ever to come from these shores as the Lions ripped Australia to pieces in Brisbane.
His CV - with a Grand Slam to his name as a captain - is head and shoulders above any others and while the formerly unstoppable bursts of acceleration can now be stopped as time and the rigours of his epic defensive game take their toll, he remains the man for whom things happen, be it a try a metre out against England or a seventy five metre interception against Munster. Things happen around O'Driscoll and if you believe in the cyclical nature of fate they are due to be good things this summer.
The reasons for being passed over by his national vice-captain were twofold; firstly there was predilection of the manager for a physically-imposing captain in the McBride/Johnson mould and then there was the Munster factor. Right now both theories look shot before the Lions gun is loaded.
History is something of which the Lions are fond and love nothing better than to relate old tales and lessons learned around the after dinner speaker's table. One of the reasons Clive Woodward invoked the wrath of so many distinguished Lions was because he didn't give a fig for history (and yes, maybe he was guilty of being too dismissive of it in the New Labour way that was inevitable when he appointed Alastair Campbell as Propaganda Lion). Yet being in tow to it could prove an equally grievous error made on McGeechan's part.
O'Connell has much to prove on the world stage before he can concentrate on pure matters of leadership. While O'Driscoll has reached the heights as a Lion O'Connell has the memory of a disappointing tour to New Zealand. Whereas O'Driscoll is probably one of the few Lions whose ability to dominate his opposite number is considered likely, the captain has arguably the toughest individual task of them all.
Big ask for O'Connell
Adi Jacobs awaits O'Driscoll; Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield are looming large on the Munster man's horizon. This is the leading second row combination in world rugby, it has been for years. It will take O'Connell to produce the rugby of his life to gain parity against the heartbeat of the Springbok team.
If he does rise with the altitude to heights he has yet to reach, he will be counted among the greats of British and Irish history. But this is quite some 'if'. If he comes up short and is found wanting against them (as nearly every second row has at some time in the last decade or so) then the Lions have a leader who they will have to help rather than follow.
The not very subtle psychology of the 'big man' theory - which the South Africans have already dismissed out of hand as so much nonsense - is defenestrated along with the aura of winning with which the manager hoped to pack the squad. The Blues defeat on the heels of Munster's could be the first hammer blow struck against the Lions even before the tour party leaves this hemisphere.
O'Connell under fire failed to quell the panic in the ranks. He is used to winning as captain of Munster and used to dominating. Did McGeechan think the Lions would ever dominate the current world champions? There was an air of panic in the Munster ranks. The skipper's first lieutenant, Ronan O'Gara, went missing for Munster as he had for Ireland against England and without him the big man looked just a little bit lost.
In contrast, O'Driscoll has the miles of high octane captaincy on the clock. He has the experiences of the tight wins and narrow losses to help him navigate through the squalls and showers, not to mention storms that will blow into the faces of the Lions. He also has the respect of world opposition in a way that O'Connell does not.
Respect is earned through achievements not sheer size. Fingers crossed that the outstanding Munster man takes the step from one of Europe's finest to one of the world's, but he is yet to do so whereas O'Driscoll - however many inches shorter than his flame-haired friend - is a player nobody can look down upon.
It seems that this whole 'imposing figure standing outside the opposition changing room door' is something symbolic and metaphorical that has seeped into the legend of the Lions, and become somehow an accepted but flawed reality. It is not size but standing that matters. Shaun Fitzpatrick, Nick Farr Jones and now John Smit; none of these are goliaths, but all were or are leaders based upon their achievements on the field and their qualities as a captain. On those terms the Lions had only one choice as captain for South Africa and it was not Paul O'Connell.
Ian McGeechan has taken a huge gamble in overlooking the Grand Slam captain as the one and only obvious leader of the Lions. If O'Connell cannot rise to the heights where the Springbok locks perform the decision to base judgement around Lions mythology will look one of the erroneous decisions of Ian McGeechan's illustrious career.