Lions squad brings skill to South Africa party – but past lessons must be learned | Ugo Monye
For those players selected in the British & Irish Lions squad on Wednesday, the tour starts this weekend. That’s how I felt when I was lucky enough to have my name read out in 2009; you feel a sense of wanting to prove you deserve your place and you are already thinking about pressing your claims for the Test team. I was up against Shane Williams who had been named World Player of the Year in 2008 so I knew I had my work cut out.
My first match after being selected was a European quarter-final against Leinster and my last was the Premiership semi-final against London Irish. I didn’t find this out for a while afterwards but my mum had a dream in the week that I broke my neck playing rugby. I went up for a high ball in the first 10 minutes and landed on my head – my mum was in the crowd at the time. I just remember thinking I couldn’t go off, I was desperate to help Harlequins to a final. The following Six Nations I was knocked unconscious and had to have a scan, and while I got the all clear for that they noticed I had a displaced disc in my neck that had been there for six months or so. Had I gone off against Irish I really don’t think I would have made the tour so it just goes to show, the fate of these players is the lap of the gods.
It also means that while there is huge devastation among so many players who have missed out, they too have to remain focused for these final weeks of the season. The chances are that the 37 who get on the plane may not be the same as those who had their names read out. Dylan Hartley springs to mind in 2013, and in 2009 Jerry Flannery was injured in the final training session before flying out.
There’s so much to like about this squad, even if Nostradamus couldn’t have predicted it. There’s a lot of physicality: a clear message that the Lions are ready to take South Africa on, to match their fitness and pace but also to bring skill to the party. It has some good balance plus a few question marks, and I would have to agree with Brian O’Driscoll and wonder where the creativity will come from in midfield. The answer may well be Finn Russell if it is a continuing problem for Warren Gatland and, on a separate note, I can imagine that South Africa will look at that squad and be delighted Manu Tuilagi is not in it.
Warren has talked about the 2009 tour and how we were caught cold in the first Test, that we were not ready for the Springboks’ brutality and I would have to agree with him. My mind goes back to the Monday morning review after that defeat. Shaun Edwards said it was the worst first defensive set he had seen in an international match. We got battered on the scrum and John Smit strolled in under the sticks. We conceded a try in the first defensive set in our 22 – it’s not exactly how you want to set your stall out. Warren will have learned from that and it will have affected his squad selection.
So too will the character and personality of his players. It is so important that if you’re not a Test starter and you’re in a bubble for 10 weeks, you have good men who can accept their roles in the squad. You can’t underestimate the importance of the midweek squad. They have opportunities to press for places but you can’t have people going off tour.
Someone such as Duhan van der Merwe –I don’t have him in the Test side at the moment –but I can see him being so grateful for the opportunity and being a great midweek tourist. It’s easy to be a good bloke and a good Lion when you’re part of the Test side but it’s doing it when you aren’t that’s the challenge. I think having to manage that in the era of biosecure bubbles has played a big part in Warren handing Alun Wyn Jones the captaincy.
The level of competition for places in that Test side is so intense, you just throw yourself into everything from the first day to try and gain the respect of your teammates. I was gutted when I wasn’t selected for the first game against the Royal XV. You want to get out there and set your stall out, but it motivated me even more to make sure when I got my chance I really took it and I scored two tries in the next game. You have to relish the competition but at the same time understand that 37 doesn’t go into 23. The importance of ensuring that everyone buys into that message cannot be overstated.