Edinburgh-based Lions rugby manager Andy Irvine has set his squad the challenge of going through their tour of Australia next summer in record-breaking style.
Back on Scottish soil just 24 hours after being in London to help announce Warren Gatland as coach to the British and Irish Lions, who will tour Australia next year, Irvine used the occasion of a Macmillan Cancer Support promotion he is backing to establish a tour target.
Said the former Heriot’s, Edinburgh and Scotland full back: “The objective is not just to win the Tests but to win all the matches because it hasn’t been done before.”
Here a link exists between Irvine and the 1974 Lions, the first of three tour parties he embellished with swashbuckling skill. Those tourists battled through South Africa to become known as “The Invincibles” with the only blemish on their tour a draw in the last of four Tests.
Irvine was speaking at Murrayfield in support of plans to raise £11 million through holding 30,000 Macmillan coffee mornings across the UK on Friday, September 28. And it was a poignant occasion recalling Irvine’s friendly rivalry with fellow Edinburgher Bruce Hay, who died of cancer in 2007.
“On occasions like this I do think of Bruce,” said Irvine of the man with whom he battled for Scotland and Lions full back shirts in the 1970s and early ’80s. “I visited him during his illness and a lasting memory is of the help and support he received towards the end from Marie Curie hospice.”
Hay toured in 1977 and 1980 when Irvine hoisted his Lions points tally to 267 – an aggregate unlikely ever to be surpassed given the way the match schedule has had to decrease in size due to the professional era.
And Irvine revealed he even feared for the Lions future when professionalism arrived.
“After 1995 there was real doubt whether the Lions could continue but they have just gone from strength to strength.
“The big leap forward was in 2001 when for some reason so many fans turned up on the Australia trip. These fans made it. It was like golf’s Ryder Cup, which has a magnetic effect with a full house every time it is played. The players love it. They see it as the pinnacle of their career.
“The Lions are probably bigger now than in the 70s and 80s. On my first tour (1974) we had an entourage of two amounting to a coach and a manager.
“Last time in South Africa (2009) we had coaches, medics, analysts, dieticians and lawyers in an entourage of 30-40. And that didn’t include the media.”
Irvine says key to strong Scottish representation will be the Six Nations series. “Before the 2009 tour Scotland did better in the Autumn Tests. It is important to show form immediately before selection as well.”
One Scot who did make the cut was scrum half Mike Blair, but doubts have been raised about his chances through moving from Edinburgh to French Division Two side Brive, partly to experience a foreign culture.
While not a Lions selector Irvine says Blair can still be in the mix along with other cross-channel exiles – so long as they have taken steps to procure their release as the French season overlaps with the start of the tour.
“The reason Warren Gatland is currently in France is to check players have been sensible and have break clauses in their contracts. Last time Nathan Hines didn’t have a clause but was so desperate to play for the Lions he walked out on Perpignan who wouldn’t release him.
“We would be very reluctant to take any player committed to the French Cup Final and arriving late disrupts the party and team spirit.
“Mike Blair after his last tour had, by his standards, a couple of poor seasons but last season he played as well as ever and when Edinburgh reached the Heineken Cup semi-final he was right to the fore.”