How British and Irish Lions squad selection can mess with a player's mind

Austin Healey
The Telegraph
Austin Healey at the final whistle in 2001 
Austin Healey at the final whistle in 2001 

The Lions squad is announced next Wednesday and the time for conjecture over who may – or may not – be in the squad is over. Nobody can play their way in or out at this stage.

It’s more about what the Lions squad announcement does to you mentally. It can be difficult. If you see the Lions as the absolute pinnacle, the dream you have had since you were a child, it can impact on your performance for the rest of the season. It can take a slight edge off you. 

There will be a few from Leinster and Munster that are playing in a European semi after being named in the squad. Will they slightly take their foot off the gas? Maybe even by one per cent? I would say maybe, yeah. It’s something you have to put to the back of your mind.

In 1997, the squad was named in early April and Leicester probably had 10 games to go. We were top of the league. Travelling to play Leeds away, there was a feeling of: ‘I don’t really want to be in this game. It doesn’t really matter and I could get injured here.’ That’s unprofessional, but you can’t help it. In 2001, I got injured in the second to last game of the season anyway.

Lions wildcards

I enjoyed reading Dylan Hartley’s comments this week. I felt similar. I felt that getting picked for the Lions would have been a huge privilege. I enjoyed the tours, the kit and everything that came with it. But it wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t get picked. 

If you’re really enjoying playing for England, and it is the centre of everything you are doing, why would you be desperate to go on the Lions tour and risk it? If Hartley goes with the Lions and Jamie George goes to Argentina and has an outstanding tour in front of Eddie Jones, it becomes hard for Dylan to get back in.

I went on the Lions tour as the incumbent England scrum-half in 1997. Then I came back and Matt Dawson replaced me, even though Jack Rowell had told me that I would start against Australia in July whatever happened. A Lions tour can damage your prospects with your own nation, but it can also improve them for those in the viewing window.

I realised I wasn’t taking it seriously in 1997 when I hid Will Greenwood’s selection letter. We were living together in Leicester and we’d both been named in the 60-man squad, which was getting whittled down to 35 in April.

When the morning came, I heard the postman and legged it downstairs. I saw a couple of bills – which I always had to pay because Will was too tight – and two Lions letters.

I put his in my pocket and shouted: ‘Yes, I got in!” as he was walking downstairs into our lounge. Will thought he hadn’t got one. 

“Ah, mate,” I said. “I can’t believe it. I’ll make you a cup of tea. There’s a press conference in Leicester today to announce Martin Johnson as the tour captain, though. Can you give me a lift in? I quite fancy getting p----- with the lads to celebrate.”

He agreed, but was gutted. “You should have got in, pal,” I told him. “Particularly because your dad is Fran Cotton’s best mate.”

An hour later we jumped in his Mini Metro and went in to Tigers. As we got there, Sky reporter Graham Simmons knocked on the window and congratulated us both. We pulled off and Will wondered whether he was taking the mick.

Anyway, we got out the car and – because Will actually had been selected and was the only uncapped player – he was immediately surrounded by cameras. He turned round to see me holding his letter. He was wearing a rubbish pair of tracksuit bottoms and a pair of trainers to the official press launch. He wasn't happy: he took all that very seriously.

Your country and the Lions are not separate ambitions you have to juggle. Who you are dictates how you treat them. Take England: Eddie Jones’ squad is an enjoyable place. There are guys who borderline to go on the Lions tour – James Haskell, Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, guys like that. Others, like Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw, probably won’t go.

When you are not enjoying playing for England and you are just racking up the caps, missing out on the Lions tour will feel like a massive loss. This time, if those England players don’t go, they can think: "Oh well, I’m going to Argentina and we’re going to play some great rugby."

They can stay in the team, impress Jones ahead of the autumn internationals. Their mind-set suddenly switches from thinking about the Lions to actually getting in the World Cup team. Conversely, if I am Sam Underhill or Zach Mercer, I am hoping both Wood and Haskell get picked for the Lions. Then I will get in a viewing window myself. 

  • Austin Healey is a proud ambassador of Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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