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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'Andy Farrell gets it. Head and heart in perfect alignment. Get him in the job now.'

Mick Cleary: 'Andy Farrell gets it. Head and heart in perfect alignment. Get him in the job now.'
3 months ago

It’s never too early to start thinking about a Lions tour. There has already been one significant milestone notched on the way to the 2025 tour – the agreement reached last week with the URC and Premier Rugby over release dates. That is good news, a united front.

Ian McGeechan was the master-planner. Even when you thought he wasn’t taking much notice, he was. Everything matters. Everything counts. Prior to the 1997 British and Irish Lions trip to South Africa, Geech checked in on the All Blacks tour there in 1996. New Zealand had never won a series in South Africa. They won that one, and in this age of TV-saturated events and endlessly-repeating fixture lists, you only have to google up pictures of well-travelled, battle-hardened, been-there-done-that-got the T-shirt Kiwis such as Sean Fitzpatrick or Ian Jones, slumped on the turf at the final whistle, wasted but exultant, to appreciate the magnitude of that achievement. The Springboks yield to no-one without the mother-and-father of scraps. It was true back in the 50s, true back in the post-apartheid 90s and it was true only a matter of a few weeks ago in France.

Sir Ian McGeechan
Sir Ian McGeechan is a Lions legend and knows the value of meticulous planning (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Yet Geech’s Lions had done the business again within 12 months of Fitzy’s black-shirted mates chiselling their little bit of history. It took New Zealand decades to come out on top in South Africa. It took the Lions half a dozen weeks. You might argue it was down to Dawson’s show-and-go down the blindside in Cape Town or Jerry’s little-used drop-goal skills or Jenks’ dead-eyed kicking as opposed to the couldn’t-hit-a-cow’s arse with a banjo place-kicking in the oppo ranks. All of these played a part, a thrilling and wonderful part as the game’s first professional Lions tour pressed all the right buttons, but so too did mundane detail accrued by Geech on that unprecedented planning mission. Take a bigger squad. Move the point of contact on the field of play. Have proper back-up staff. Have scrum machines on the road round South Africa. Detail. Detail. Detail. There was a wealth of scribbles in the McGeechan notebook with the All Blacks generous with their advice. The game plan that was to do for the ‘Boks was hatched 12 months earlier.

You might recall that the Lions lost every conceivable battle [in 2005], including the media games. It is a grievous blot on Woodward’s CV.

There is a caveat to this line of meticulous thinking. It’s called the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand. Clive Woodward thought of everything. And then some. He even, at the prompting of myself and the Sunday Times’ esteemed correspondent, Stephen Jones, brought along Alastair Campbell as his media chief. To be fair to the pair of us (who were the media-liaison committee) we only badgered Woodward to make sure he tooled-up on the media front as the one-eyed locals would be gunning for the tourists from the moment they touched down in Auckland.

You might recall that the Lions lost every conceivable battle, including the media games. It is a grievous blot on Woodward’s CV. If we are to be devil’s advocate and be generous, then maybe Woodward’s no-expense-spared way, go big, split squads, single rooms, fly-in-fly-out for matches, use proven units, had to be tried once in the professional era for everyone to realise that it is not the way to deliver success. Or happiness. Or buy-in from player and fan. Given that the Lions had gone out on a limb four years earlier, too, with the appointment of their first foreign coach in Graham Henry, who knew so much about coaching and so little (as he was later to admit) about handling a disparate group, rivals who had to become mates within a matter of days, the calamitous fall-out from yet another tour threatened the future validity of the Lions.

Sir Clive Woodward
Sir Clive Woodward overplanned with a huge entourage on the disastrous 2005 Linos tour (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

A Lions project is different to any other challenge on the rugby calendar. I remember chewing the fat with Phil Larder prior to the 2001 tour to Australia. He was tremendously excited about what he might be able to bring to bear as defence coach. As was to be expected from the man who paved the way for the modern defence coach, he was full of ideas and strategies, diligent, imaginative and technically spot-on. It was a fascinating listen. The only problem was that he would have needed six months to get it all in. You’re lucky if you get six sessions as a defence coach. The Lions is about laying down a framework. Then it is all about empowerment and trust. And a few crossed fingers.

Only the very best need apply. Which, before we get to Andy Farrell, brings us round to Eddie Jones, a man who has never been approached by the Lions but who has said that a Lions job is ‘for the blazers.. an ambassadorial role.’ It was only a few days ago also that the man who has screwed up two of the best jobs in world rugby, with England and then Australia, showed himself to be a small-minded, self-centred egoist first and foremost when stating that he ‘liked the English,’ but had no time for ‘the rest of them.’  That is, the Celts.

Rugby needs its big occasions to resonate for all sorts of reasons. There will already be thousands of supporters who have jimmied their way into piggy banks to pay their deposits

Jones can’t even admit to himself just how tough a gig the Lions is and that he is not up to it. Henry, at least, had the good grace to eventually acknowledge his own limitations.

Given what a parlous state Jones has left Australian rugby in, we can all only fall on bended knee and pray that the Aussies get their act together in time to make the 2025 tour a wholly competitive one. Lord knows the 2021 Covid-blighted trip to South Africa only yielded rugby from the Stone Age and a limited audience. Rugby needs its big occasions to resonate for all sorts of reasons. There will already be thousands of supporters who have jimmied their way into piggy banks to pay their deposits but alluring as Uluru or Sydney Harbour or a Margaret River Chardonnay might be, a Lions tour is judged by the quality of its rugby, by the fierceness of the contest around the country as much as it is in the test series.

Andy Farrell
Andy Farrell travelled to Australia as a coach in 2013 and understands the landscape perfectly (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

And so to Farrell, a man in tune with every single sentiment expressed so far in this piece. He knows all about the value of good prep without ever deadening the players. He knows how to be serious and when to have fun. He takes the job seriously without taking himself seriously. He knows how to get people to gell. He knows the importance of a pint in the pub as much as the value of an extra session on the dumbells. He respects the opposition. He knows that the best laid plans can get blown to buggery as soon as the first crunch on bone is heard. There was standing room only in the ambulance taking a quintet of Lions to the hospital after the brutal yet brilliant second test in 2009.

And the head coach? There is only one man in these isles who understands the brief and has proven that he can execute it and that is Farrell. He gets it. Head and heart in perfect alignment. Get him in the job now.

Farrell knows all this from his shifts as assistant coach on the 2013 and 2017 tours. He has been up close and personal. He knows that passion is as important as tactics. His ‘hurt arena’ speech is as famous as well as influential as Jim Telfer’s ‘Everest’ musings.

And the head coach? There is only one man in these isles who understands the brief and has proven that he can execute it and that is Farrell. He gets it. Head and heart in perfect alignment. Get him in the job now.

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