London Irish stars delivering 800 meals a day to NHS hospitals

Shut away in isolation, London Irish owner Mick Crossan would be forgiven for putting himself first.

Major heart surgery 15 months ago has left him vulnerable to infection. By his own reckoning he has to be “extra careful”.

Yet rather than dwell on his own needs he has joined son Edward in helping mobilise the club to feed those on the front line fighting the coronavirus.

Every day this week more than 800 meals are being prepared at Irish’s Hazelwood training base in Sunbury by club chef Bogdan Konecki.

They are then packed up and delivered by Exiles players and backroom staff to 14 NHS hospitals and four palliative care homes all around London.

While rugby takes a back seat, with pay cuts and furloughs the order of the day, London Irish and its main sponsor, Powerday, who are bankrolling the operation, have switched into overdrive.

Irish is a club which, by Crossan’s own admission, “is always one of those that’s going to be fighting for its life” in the choppy financial waters of professional club rugby.

For now, however, it is doing everything it can to protect the real lives of others.

“All of a sudden people everywhere are beginning to realise there’s more to life than artificial things,” Crossan continued.

“In normal times my phone doesn’t stop, but that stuff doesn’t matter when my best friend is in North Middlesex Hospital with pneumonia and coronavirus.”

The pledge is to deliver 100,000 meals to doctors, nurses and carers battling the pandemic. Even the players’ £3,000 ‘beer fund’ has gone towards the cause.

“It started with my son saying he wanted to do something to help,” Crossan explained. “Offering to pay for the food if the guys and girls at London Irish would mind helping cook and distribute it.

“He was the driving force but I told him our company would take it on and everyone has just fallen in behind the project and rolled up their sleeves.

“The players and staff at the club have been incredible, not only delivering food but collecting medical supplies for the vulnerable and the elderly.

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Sharks star feared becoming ‘the face’ of NRL’s coronavirus shutdown

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Sharks centre Bronson Xerri has revealed he feared being the face of the NRL shutdown after he was tested for coronavirus in March.

Xerri feared a negative test would make him the reason for a suspension of the NRL season which so many people depend on for their livelihood’s and quality of life.

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“I didn’t want to be the face of it, I was looking at myself on the news while being sick on the lounge thinking I was going to hold everyone in the game up,” Xerri told NRL.com.

“The boys were into me too that I was going to be the face of the virus and I just kept thinking why is this going to be me?”

Sharks players are required to disclose any medical conditions to club doctor Paul Annett to avoid other players being put at risk no matter how serious the condition.

Dr Annett ordered Xerri to take the test as soon as he made his symptoms known.

“I was not keen to do that at all but he gave me no choice and called the hospital to tell them I was coming,” Xerri said.

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“My big thing was I didn’t want it to get out in the media so I walked in with a hat on and kept my head down to disguise myself.

“I went into this room and everyone had to have a mask on that was about to get tested for it.

“I felt like a criminal the way everyone was looking at me. They swabbed my tongue and the back of my throat and then went up my nostril. It was a weird experience.”

Bronson Xerri was tested for coronavirus in early March.Source:AAP

Results for the coronavirus test take up to 72 hours to turn around and while Xerri received his the next day it was still the longest 24 hours of his life.

“I had everyone on hold, I had heaps of messages from family, who were in contact with people at their work,” Xerri said.

“It all hit the media so then those close to me were being asked if they’d been near me, there was no escaping it then. I guess it shows how easily it could spread if others were in contact with me but showed no symptoms.”

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Originally published asSharks star feared becoming ‘the face’ of NRL’s coronavirus shutdown

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$4m truth behind Wallabies coach threat

New Wallabies coach Dave Rennie is at the centre of a mixed-messaging storm after a bombshell report he would consider walking away from his contract if Raelene Castle is ousted as Rugby Australia CEO.

On the same day it was revealed Australian players will seek get-out clauses, freeing them up to play in overseas competitions, in ongoing pay cut negotiations, Rennie’s uncertain future was revealed in dramatically contrasting media reports.

The Sydney Morning Herald first reported Rennie would consider giving up his reported four-year contract with the Wallabies, such is his regard for Castle, who was part of the committee that handed him the Wallabies job last year.

However, The Australian reports Rennie is getting cold feet after seeing the financial turmoil that has gripped the game in Australia.

Rugby Australia (RA) reportedly has cash reserves of just $11 million — enough to continue paying players for just three more months.

With no rugby to be played for the foreseeable future, the professional and community game faces an uncertain future as RA stares down the barrel of a financial loss of up to $120 millionin 2020.

Dave Rennie is walking in to a storm.Source:Getty Images

75 per cent of Rugby Australia staff have been stood down and Castle has headlined a series of executive pay cuts — taking a 50 per cent pay cut on her reported $800,000 per-year salary.

It is the financial plight of Rugby Australia that has really got Rennie second-guessing his decision to coach the Wallabies.

The report claims “the new financial constraints now gripping the game in this country were of far greater concern to” the former Chiefs coach.

Senior reporter Wayne Smith outlines Rennie’s cold feet centre around the widespread reports he is facing a “savage” pay cut on the reported $1 million per season deal he signed through to the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Castle said in the report Rennie’s coaching take over is still on schedule to begin on July 1 — in line with the original schedule of his transition from the Glasgow Warriors to the Wallabies’ top job.

However, there are now suggestions Rennie may not even travel to Australia this winter — if international borders remain closed and all international rugby is unable to be played.

Rennie has previously spoken highly of Castle’s administration skills during his application to replace Michael Cheika as Wallabies coach.

Raelene Castle has rejected reports Dave Rennie would follow her out the door.Source:Getty Images

“I had a lot of time to think about it. I got an approach from Australia reasonably early on, so I did my homework,” he said in January.

“Raelene flew to Jersey, we had a sit down for a few hours. She really impressed me. Smart and tough, really keen for change, and driven. The fact I know [director of rugby Scott Johnson], I felt the leadership here was really strong, I felt they’d have my back. That was a big part of it.”

However, Castle on Monday dismissed the report that the coach would walk with her if she was tapped on the shoulder.

Castle is reportedly fighting for her job with a number of high profile Wallabies greats campaigning for Phil Kearns to replace her as RA chief executive.

A number of high profile Castle supporters on the RA board have also moved on since this month’s Annual General Meeting where former chairman Cameron Clyne stepped down and Paul McLean took his office.

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New Club World Cup proposed by World Rugby vice-chairman candidate Bernard Laporte to replace Heineken Champions Cup

Former France and Toulon head coach Bernard Laporte wants to kill off the Heineken Champions Cup and the rest of the European season in order to create a Club World Cup.

Tha plans, which will be outlined to unions across the globe this week ahead of the World Rugby elections in May, call for a 20-club tournament that mirrors the Rugby World Cup, featuring sides from the English Premiership, French Top 14, Pro14 and Super Rugby as well as one club from both the United States and Japan.

Laporte is running alongside World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont in an effort to replace former Argentina international Agustin Pichot as vice-chairman, with Beaumont giving the proposal his full backing, and while the tournament is just an idea at this stage, Laporte made his intentions clear that it is where he sees the future of global club rugby going.

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“The European competition is magnificent, with Toulon (as head coach) I was able to lift the trophy three times and I know what it can represent,” Laporte told French newspaper Midi Olympique

“But let’s be frank, it does not generate enough income. If we want to develop this Club World Cup, we have to find dates. Without the Champions Cup, nine weekends are available.

“This is only a proposal, but I am sure of one thing: we must create this competition and very quickly. It could be a breath of fresh air for the whole of world rugby.”

The plan comes at a time when rugby union as a sport is facing a crisis due to the coronavirus outbreak. With all professional rugby currently suspended worldwide, clubs face losing significant sums of money that will undoubtedly bankrupt some of them, while unions are also facing difficult times ahead with large losses expected. Last week USA Rugby became the first union to declare itself bankrupt.

As a result, talks are underway between leading union bosses about restructuring the game for the good of the sport, which could finally see a global calendar introduced that is not built based on the interest of individuals but trying to take universal decisions where possible. A lot of those talks will be between northern and southern hemisphere sides who currently do not match up on the calendar, though a Club World Cup could go a long way towards helping those negotiations.

However, any new tournament will need financial backing and support given what Laporte aims to achieve with it, with sponsorship proving hard to come by currently in club rugby that has led to many turning to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners for investment.

“All are excited by such a project,” Laporte added. “The goal of my approach is to find the income that will allow (unions) to finance both the professional and amateur world. 

“This crisis must push us to be innovative. Let’s make this new competition. I am sure that the public and television will follow.”

The RFU is expecting to lose up to £50m over the next 18 months because of the coronavirus pandemic and the cost of the Rugby World Cup, while the New Zealand Rugby Union is expecting similar losses of around $50m (£24.1m). Laporte added that he has privately discussed the proposal already with RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney, as well as club bosses in the Top 14.

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Michael Leitch fears Japan are not capitalising on 2019 Rugby World Cup success

Japan’s fairytale run to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals was a highlight of last year’s tournament but with the afterglow all but gone captain Michael Leitch fears not enough is being done to secure the Brave Blossoms a place at the game’s top table.

Almost six months after Japan’s emotional victory over Scotland in Yokohama secured their spot in the last eight for the first time, rugby, like the rest of world sport, has been brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even before the unprecedented shutdown, however, questions were being raised as to whether Japan was fully capitalising on the success of rugby’s first World Cup in Asia.

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There had been talk of bringing Japan into the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship or even Europe’s Six Nations but Leitch said getting Japanese rugby back to a place where it could compete with the world’s top sides was a big ask.

“To get to that point (at the World Cup) took a lot of hard work, four years of hard work, and we did that for a short period,” Leitch told Reuters last month in the coffee shop he owns on the outskirts of Tokyo.

“To do it back-to-back … would be a very difficult process. If that was going to happen, you would have to change the way the Top League operates and have certain times when the national team can get together and train.

“But at the moment, it is a bit … I wouldn’t say disorganised … but we are not focusing on the Japanese team at the moment.”

In an unprecedented move last year, the corporations that own Japan’s domestic clubs allowed players to train with the national team for nine months ahead of the World Cup.

Since then, however, the Top League had returned to normal, meaning the players would only be available to Japan for short periods before test matches.

If the coronavirus shutdown is lifted and Test matches go ahead this year, Japan will face tier one nations New Zealand, England and Ireland as part of a packed schedule.

Leitch said there was a lot riding on those tests.

“If we start losing those test matches then we could get back to only playing against tier two countries,” he said.

“There is a lot of pressure on us to keep playing well and to be competitive against those top tier one countries.”

Japan has also lost its Super Rugby side, the Sunwolves, who will not be returning to the competition in 2021 after the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) and southern hemisphere governing body Sanzaar were unable to agree terms on a deal.

“It is very disappointing,” Leitch said. “It was such a great tool for us to develop good Japanese players, and for us to not be a part of that next year … I don’t know how else we are going to develop good Japanese players.”

The JRFU hope to fill the void with an improved domestic competition. Some big names, including Kieran Read, Dan Carter and Will Genia, had been playing in Japan before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

The JRFU has also announced there will be a new league format from 2021, though it has been short on details.

For Leitch, who was born in New Zealand and moved to Japan when he was 15-years-old, any new structure must prioritise the development of young Japanese talent.

“It is great that a lot of international players are playing in our Top League but if we look five years ahead we need to start bringing up strong Japanese players,” he said.

“I don’t want to see Japanese rugby turned into a league that has no Japanese players, or the national team with no Japanese players.

“There needs to be a way where we promote Japanese rugby players and I think that is the next step we need to take.”

As he does on the pitch, Leitch is prepared to back up his words with action, and the future of rugby in his adopted nation is at the forefront of his thinking.

“After the World Cup, I had six weeks in New Zealand,” said the 31-year-old loose forward.

“I got thinking, ‘I can’t retire from rugby, come back here, live and do nothing’. I was thinking about getting into some kind of administration job.

“Maybe become the CEO of Japanese rugby one day,” he added with a smile.

The small coffee shop he has run since 2015 is his first venture into the world of business but he says his skill set would be of benefit in an administrative role.

“I have genuine passion for Japanese rugby and I can use my English and my Japanese to communicate with different unions,” he said.

“I need to now get a business background so hopefully this coffee shop starts to make money.

“My heart is genuine when I say I want to make Japanese rugby better, so if that means starting at the top, or a different way of doing it, then I would be happy to do it.”

Reuters

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‘We have enough great young fellas’: Walters says no to Origin change

Queensland coach Kevin Walters has dismissed Brad Fittler's call for State of Origin eligibility to be relaxed this year so Tongans can play, suggesting self-isolation may be getting the better of his NSW counterpart.

Walters also rejected moves for the interstate series to kick-start rugby league after the coronavirus shutdown because it would be played in empty stadiums.

Queensland coach Kevin Walters doesn’t want to change Origin eligibility rules – even if it means missing out on Cowboys wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo.Credit:AAP

Blues coach Fittler raised eyebrows on the weekend when he called for Origin rules to be tweaked so Tongan players could represent either state after Tonga's June 20 Test with New Zealand was postponed due to the pandemic.

Fittler backed the concept, even if it meant Tongan juggernaut Jason Taumalolo – who plays for North Queensland – running out for the Maroons.

But Walters was left shaking his head.

"I think the isolation is getting to Freddy (Fittler) a little bit," he told Sky Sports Radio.

"Taumalolo is a great player but he's pledged his allegiance to Tonga.

"We have enough great Maroon young fellas coming through. We are happy with who we have available for this year's series."

Walters said he had a team that "virtually pick themselves" but still predicted some new faces for Queensland when the series eventually commenced.

He revealed young Brisbane forwards Thomas Flegler and Pat Carrigan were in the mix along with Canberra's Corey Horsburgh.

Walters also hinted that Cowboys fullback Valentine Holmes – in his return campaign from his 2019 NFL sojourn – would be slotted into a new-look Maroons backline after centre Will Chambers' rugby union defection.

"His form for the Cowboys was not overly great but I did see some nice touches from him," Walters said of Holmes, who scored eight tries in five Origins before his NFL adventure.

"Once he gets that (errors) sorted he can get back to being the player we know he can be."

Walters also does not support the new innovation committee reportedly looking at Origin relaunching the season in front of no fans due to public gathering restrictions amid the pandemic.

"I believe Origin's best position is somewhere in mid-competition or possibly at the end," Walters said.

"If you put it at the end of the competition surely by then the fans would be back in their droves.

"For mine that is what really drives Origin, it's the fans, their passion."

AAP

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100 bosses in FIVE years: Forget Greenberg’s overspending… what about the 16 NRL clubs?

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The pressure on NRL CEO Todd Greenberg regarding overspending has taken the focus away from the mismanagement of the 16 clubs.

Phil Rothfield reported for The Daily Telegraph that there has been 100 different CEO’s and chairs in the last five years among the clubs.

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“Everyone seems to be blaming the NRL for the cost catastrophe and the fact everyone is struggling and we can’t pay the players, but what about the clubs?” Rothfield said on The Big Sports Breakfast.

“What about the mismanagement from the 16 clubs?

“Let’s start at Manly’s CEO’s, Pat Wilson, Grant Mayer, Paul Cummings, David Perry, Graham Lowe, Joe Kelly, Tim Cleary, Lyall Gorman and now Stephen Humphreys. Nine in 12 years.

“Cronulla had four in two and a half years. Lyall Gorman, Barry Russell, Richard Munro and Dino Mezzatesta. Now what sort of instability is that?

“When you look at clubs and how they have butchered money. Look at Penrith, they sacked Ivan Cleary. They brought in Anthony Griffin. They then extended Anthony Griffin. They were running fourth in the competition and they sack Anthony Griffin. Then they bring back Ivan Cleary. It is disgraceful.”

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Rothfield believes the NRL clubs have for too long been throwing money away with long-term bloated contracts for overpaid stars.

“Look at South Sydney who gave Greg Inglis and Sam Burgess long-term contracts and we knew with Inglis there were doubts about his long-term sustainability,” Rothfield said.

“He broke down a couple of years into the contract. They are paying out millions of dollars to those two players.

“The Dragons had to borrow $7 million dollars from the NRL after winning the competition. They went out and bought Ben Hunt for $1.2 million a season. $6 million over five years.

“And we all want to blame Todd Greenberg and the NRL. The standard of administration at the clubs is very ordinary.

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“Manly paid two coaches at once. Trent Barrett and Des Hasler who are million dollar coaches.”

Laurie Daley believes clubs should not be allowed to use their grant money from the NRL to sack players and coaches before their contracts expire.

“I think there has been a lot of wastage in rugby league,” Daley said.

“If you get a $10 million grant, which they won’t going forward, but I believe if you want to sack a player or coach that should come off your grant.

Manly paid Trent Barrett and his replacement Des Hasler at the same time.Source:AAP

“You shouldn’t get money to waste. It would make them think differently about how they run their business knowing that if you get rid of a coach or player and the coach is on $600,000 then they are not going to get extra money to do that. That will come off their cap the next year and so forth.”

Rothfield believes the NRL have ample revenue streams to make clubs viable provided they do not mismanage their funds.

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“The bottom line is in the old days the NRL grants were not as big as the salary cap,” Rothfield said.

“Today every club gets a $13 million dollar grant. That is $3.5 million over the top of their salary cap for player payments. They then get their sponsorships. They then get their bums on seats. They then get their memberships and merchandise.

“It should not be too hard under that scenario to at least be close to breaking even.

“What we saw last season is $24 million in losses across the game and the year before $50 million and the year before $60 million.”

Originally published as100 bosses in FIVE years: Forget Greenberg’s overspending… what about the 16 NRL clubs?

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Dangerfield not sure about short quarters

Geelong superstar and AFLPA president Patrick Dangerfield isn't convinced that 16-minute quarters will be here to stay if and when the AFL competition finally resumes.

The league adopted abbreviated quarters – down from regulation 20 minutes – from round one in the face of the looming coronavirus pandemic.

AFLPA president Patrick Dangerfield.Credit:Getty Images

A number of AFL greats and experts believe the AFL should stick with shorter quarters after a successful audition in round one.

The move was made to theoretically squeeze more matches in a shorter period later in the year but Dangerfield says players are yet to commit to it under the current collective bargaining agreement.

"Clearly we're still in the middle of a current CBA so the way I see it is that 20 minutes plus time on, 22 games throughout the season – so the CBA will have to be revisited," Dangerfield told Channel Seven on Sunday.

"It's not just as clear cut as saying, 'Oh it worked really well in round one, let's continue it'."

The Brownlow medallist also has reservations about proposed playing list cuts down from 38-40 to 35 as part of a leaner AFL club model for 2021.

He feels players will be under pressure coming off a massively interrupted year.

"The expectation on players is huge in terms of the physical component of the game," he said.

"Reducing lists a significant amount would clearly have an impact on that."

Dangerfield led the players' union's discussion with the AFL, which resolved a minimum 50 per cent pay cut for the season and was proud of their quick resolution.

But he came under fire from some parties, including AFL legend Leigh Matthews, which he said had been hard to swallow.

"It takes years to organise and orchestrate a CBA and we changed one in just a few days," said Dangerfield.

"It was tough that week – any time that players or the Players' Association are slandered throughout the industry, it gets to you.

"I haven't spoken to Leigh yet but I'm sure I will get the chance."

AAP

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British & Irish Lions: Sir Ian McGeechan picks his best XV for 2021

This is a piece of pure sporting escapism, some light amid the darkness.

Forget the here and now and transport yourself into the coronavirus-free world of summer 2021 and the month of July that will bring so many extraordinary occasions, the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa among them.

We have Sir Ian McGeechan for company on this ride to the southern hemisphere. No better man.

McGeechan was a player in South Africa on the victorious Lions tour of 1974, one of the greatest of all. He was coach of the victorious Lions tour in South Africa in 1997, another expedition that ranks in the highest echelon of rugby adventures. He was coach again in South Africa in 2009, when his squad played some magnificent stuff, but went down 2-1 to the world champions.

In the last 46 years, the Lions have toured South Africa four times and McGeechan was heavily involved in three of them. You couldn’t hope for a better travel-mate.

“South Africa is the most unique of Lions tours,” he says. “The crowds are intimidating, there’s the Afrikaner on the highveld, there’s the relentless physicality. Martin Johnson [McGeechan’s captain in 1997] always said that players can only talk about being in a really physical game after they’d played the Springboks in their own backyard. It’s just different there,” he said.

‘You need Test-Match Animals’

McGeechan will pick his fantasy Lions team shortly, but first some context about what he would be looking for. The odds are that the coach Warren Gatland will be searching for precisely the same characteristics.

“You don’t beat the Springboks physically, but you manage them physically so you can win somewhere else. We did that in 1974 and, in 1997, we moved their powerful forwards around the pitch and played away from them. In 2009, we didn’t win the series but the South Africans said they couldn’t read the rugby we were playing at times.

“Technically and tactically the game moves on, but the principle remains the same – the more decision-makers you have in the team the better. This is why I used the phrase ‘Test-Match Animal’ – you’re looking for a player who has another level he can go to mentally and technically under pressure.

“Stopping South Africa’s momentum was the key in 1974 and it’s still the key to this day. Force your opponent to play a game they didn’t anticipate playing, a game they didn’t see in their heads. You’re looking for guys who have the confidence and ability to make things happen. Pre-programmed players can’t do that. You need special players.”

McGeechan says that when he drew up his long list of players for the 2021 tour, he ended up with 51. He also says that a thousand different people might engage in a similar exercise and there would be a thousand different versions. That’s the beauty of the game.

Gatland will have to do it for real this time next year, but the rest of us can play at it for now.

Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England) & Liam Williams (Wales)

“The Test team you think you will have never actually materialises,” says McGeechan. “Players always come through, but for now I’d definitely have those three. Hogg has been playing great rugby and is in. I’d definitely have Watson. He’s great under the high ball, has unbelievable feet and would be outstanding on hard South African grounds. Liam is the one I’d go for on the left wing.

“There are others – Jordan Larmour, Jonny May, Josh Adams, George North, Andrew Conway – and one I’d be really thinking about is Elliot Daly, a really good footballer who can play in any position in the back three but he also kicks goals from halfway. With two games at altitude it that means that 10m inside your own half is in his range so that forces South Africa to have a real discipline because they know he can hurt them.”

Jonathan Davies (Wales), Manu Tuilagi (England)

He’s been impressed by Sam Johnson and Robbie Henshaw, but Jonathan Davies is McGeechan’s outside centre even though he was injured and missed the Six Nations. The Welshman has more than enough credit in the bank given that he was Lions player of the series three years ago in New Zealand and was magnificent for Wales in 2019, their latest Grand Slam year.

“He’d be my pick, if fit. If he’s not, it’s likely to be Henry Slade,” McGeechan says. “I really rate his decision-making. I think he would excel with the Lions. At 12, I have to go with Manu. There’s such power there. And you’ll need that.”

Owen Farrell (England)

There’s a shortlist of three here – Farrell, Dan Biggar and Finn Russell. McGeechan would take all three, but Farrell makes the Test team by dint of his control of a game, his big-match temperament and his dead-eye goalkicking.

“Johnny Sexton has been a magnificent player but he hasn’t played really well for quite some time and he’ll be 35 in July,” he explains. “George Ford has played well for England, particularly when on the front foot, but the real test, as he discovered in the World Cup final, is how a fly-half performs on the back foot and he has something to work on.

“Farrell and Biggar can manage a game behind a struggling pack, so they’ll be very important. Finn just gives you something very different. It would be fascinating to see him on a Lions tour from the start.”

Gareth Davies (Wales)

“I have four on my list and only three will probably go,” McGeechan says. “There’s Davies and Rhys Webb from Wales, Conor Murray from Ireland, and Ali Price from Scotland.

“Murray has not been himself for a while now and that’s a concern. I’d really like to see Price coming through because I enjoy the way he plays. But if I had to call it, I’d say Davies. He’s a terrific player.”

Rory Sutherland (Scotland)

Like the rest of us, McGeechan watched in admiration – and occasional awe – as Sutherland came back from the rugby wilderness during the Six Nations. The prop was absent from the big stage for more than three years but returned with a series of powerhouse performances. McGeechan calls him a “bolter”. And he’s in.

“There’s a huge amount of competition,” he says. “Ellis Genge and Mako Vunipola from England – although Mako seems to get injured a hell of a lot – Cian Healy from Ireland and Wyn Jones from Wales.

“On form, I have to go with Sutherland. He’s been absolutely brilliant. He’s not just a good technical rugby player, he can play, he can run, he makes an impact. His story is an incredible one. I’d love to see him kick on.”

Jamie George (England)

“Right now, I’d say there’s four clear candidates, but all of this can change,” McGeechan says. “There’s Jamie George and Luke Cowan Dickie, there’s Ken Owens and there’s Stuart McInally.

“Three hookers will travel, but I think George is the pick of them. Fantastic consistency, tough, good set-piece performer, just a very solid character. He will take some shifting.”

Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)

This looks like it could be a three-horse race between Tadhg Furlong, an epic Lion in New Zealand in 2017; Kyle Sinckler, who has become more and more critical to everything England are doing; and Zander Fagerson, who discovered his very best stuff this season.

“I’d still have Furlong,” says McGeechan. “He’s not had a brilliant season but he’s such a good player and in these circumstances you would get the best out of him. He’d rise to the challenge. He’s done it before.”

Maro Itoje (England) & James Ryan (Ireland)

McGeechan laughs when considering the options here, because there’s so many. Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Joe Launchbury of England; Iain Henderson and James Ryan of Ireland; Alun Wyn Jones of Wales; Grant Gilchrist of Scotland. That’s just for starters.

“It’s a wealth of talent,” he says. “Itoje is definitely one of them and I’d bracket him as a possible captain. He’s a hell of a competitor. When you watch him, he’s into everything. He reads things so well, he’s niggling, he leads by example. He’s a really intelligent lad and a really intelligent rugby player.

“A lot of people would probably go for Alun Wyn alongside him, but I wouldn’t. Alun Wyn would be an outstanding off-field captain, a standard-setter, a senior figure, but with another year on the clock and some of the other talent that’s out there I’d go somewhere else for Maro’s partner. And that would be James Ryan – another very bright guy, another very hard and driven player with a massive work ethic.

“Those two could be unbelievable. They are two natural leaders and I’d be intrigued to see how their chemistry evolves on a Lions tour.”

Jamie Ritchie (Scotland)

The Six Nations blindsides were Aaron Wainwright, CJ Stander, Jamie Ritchie, Courtney Lawes and Peter O’Mahony, with some of them capable of moving around the back-row. McGeechan is also classifying Sam Underhill as six.

“Lawes is very close – he’s getting better and better at six,” he says. “There’s also the argument about having an extra player in the lineout against SA and he’s strong there. But I’d go with Ritchie. He’s tough, mobile, into everything. He’s a carrier, a leader, he’s improving game on game and I think he could be outstanding in a Lions jersey.”

Tom Curry (England)

There’s no shortage of formidable sevens on this list. Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy (if he can get himself fit), and Curry. The Englishman gets the nod from McGeechan even though he’s being played at number eight for his country in the absence of the injured Billy Vunipola.

“A very clever player, a relentless guy with a huge engine. He’d come into his own in a Lions environment,” he says.

Billy Vunipola (England)

“If I was picking on this season’s Six Nations, I’d go with CJ Stander,” McGeechan says. “If everybody was 100% fit, I’d go with Vunipola.

“There are options. Taulupe Faletau is coming back into it, Nick Haining has really impressed me and Caelan Doris is one to watch very closely. He was unlucky with injury but he might well come through over the next 12 months and overtake everybody. He’s an outstanding young talent.

“It’s hard to look past a fit Billy, though. Ritchie, Curry and Vunipola would be a very exciting back-row but you could go Lawes, Watson, Doris or Stander, Tipuric, Faletau. You could have a dozen combinations.”

‘Scots not so easy to ignore now’

Three Scottish Lions in the starting Test side? That’s one more than were picked in Gatland’s entire squad the last time. Gatland came in for heavy criticism from Scotland fans, many of whom painted him, ludicrously, as anti-Scottish.

“I was the same in 2009,” says McGeechan. “I picked two Scots in the original squad [Euan Murray and Nathan Hines] and I would hope people wouldn’t call me anti-Scottish. It was hard to pick the players because performances were so indifferent, collectively and individually. It has to be the best of the best.

“Scotland were in the doldrums, but there are clear signs of improvement now. Gats will have an open mind. He’ll see Scottish players have an ability to play without the ball. Their defence has been excellent.

One of the biggest criticisms of picking a Scottish player last time was that they were fine with the ball but hopeless without it and that puts a question mark against you. It’s about attitude and the Scottish boys are showing the right attitude now. They won’t be so easy to ignore next summer.”

McGeechan was a Lions player in 1974 and 1977, was the head coach in 1989, 1993 and 1997, was assistant coach in 2005 and head coach again in 2009.

At the outset of all those trips, he didn’t once accurately forecast what the Test side was going to be. He doesn’t expect this one to be accurate either, but he basks in the fun of it, now and forever.

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Home sweet home: King twins aiming to get bigger and better

Max and Ben King kicking the footy together in Melbourne in March.

It’s the prospect that all St Kilda supporters would have been salivating about at the beginning of last year’s trade period.

Twins and AFL players Ben (left) and Max King training together at a local park in Melbourne while the AFL is shut down.Credit:Joe Armao

St Kilda's Simon Lethlean and his new list manager James Gallagher would have been lauded for pulling off the unthinkable. Manager Robbie D’Orazio would have successfully reunited his two booming clients. And Gold Coast's Mark Evans, Craig Cameron and Stuart Dew would have been lamenting the loss of yet another crucial player who chose to return home.

Imagine Tony Cochrane.

The twins would be hard pressed to find a spot in a local park where they weren't hunted for interviews, autographs and selfies.

But, alas, as Max and Ben wandered on to Dendy Park on the bayside – just around the corner from where they grew up – no one looked twice.

A budding soccer star had set up a net and cones at the other end of a park, another man was using the fence line as a makeshift bench press in the car park as his personal trainer supervised, while an elderly couple strolled around the athletics track inside the oval.

All three groups were unwittingly operating under the watchful eyes of two police officers in a dark blue unmarked patrol car, which had quietly slipped into the park’s complex off Dendy Street.

The new stage-three restrictions had kicked in at midnight; you could only exercise in groups of two.

This is the new world we live in. Instead of asking the Kings about round two, we’re talking about stage three.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Ben said. “It’s been fun being back home under the one roof … but it’s not the circumstances we probably wanted to be in.”

St Kilda’s dream of landing Ben for the 2020 season was extinguished quickly when he signed a two-year contract extension late last year.

Ben – who donned his Gold Coast socks for the training session with his brother – is settled in Queensland and hopes to ride a wave of success at the Suns, along with the likes of David Swallow, Alex Sexton, Izak Rankine and housemate Jack Lukosius.

But the threat of the coronavirus has seen footballers travel across the country – and in some cases internationally – to return home to loved ones.

And so Max and Ben are back together again. For now.

Despite the awkwardness of the forced isolation, that’s really as bad as it gets for two future stars of the competition.

The two are still teenagers until July, meaning their days of domination are well and truly in front of them.

Both lamented how “unfortunate” and “devastating” the lack of football and uncertainty was for some of their older teammates, who weren’t lucky enough to have time on their side.

Indeed, as they were photographed handballing to each other, a voice bellowed from the car-park: “What’s going on here?!”

It was Saints captain Jarryn Geary who was joined – an appropriate social distance away – by fellow leader Tim Membrey.

The twins have different training regimes to undertake from their clubs, St Kilda and Gold Coast.Credit:Joe Armao

The two are trying to stay in peak condition as they wait for football to return, in what loomed as a crucial year for the Saints.

Geary is a full 12 years older than the Kings. He’s played in just one final and was due to play his 200th game in round 12.

But the twins are only going into their second year and for Max he’s wondering when he’ll play his second game.

Between now and then, both are trying to put on size. At 202 centimetres, both look like ruckmen but have the athleticism of wingmen. Now is the time, according to Max and Ben, to get stronger.



“Max brought home heaps of weights from St Kilda and we’ve put them in the house, so we’ve got a nice little garage gym going on that we hit up most days,” Ben said.

“There’s no specific weight goal,” Max said, “but the club has just said it’s a good opportunity. Especially because when you play games it’s pretty hard to put on size during the year, so it’s just a good block to eat really well and do a lot of weights.”

The eating part is where their mum Marni comes in. Max still lives at home – something Ben constantly reminds him of – but admits he’s no guru in the kitchen.

“I cooked up a bacon and egg roll for Ben the other day, which was great from all reports,” Max chuckled as he stared at his brother, half hoping for a nod of acknowledgement.

And with two elite young footballers in the house looking to put on size, what’s usually on Marni's menu? “Lots and lots of meat.”

While both will be trying to put on size, their club-designed training plans are actually quite different.

Max has regular running and football sessions, while Ben’s current two-week block from Gold Coast has him preparing like nothing has changed.

“At the moment I’m training like there are games on,” he said. “I did five kilometres worth of running on Monday, then I’ll build through the week and do a game-like session of over 10 kilometres running along with football drills."

When the twins aren’t training, or lifting weights, or eating, there are two activities that dominate the King household in isolation. Basketball and video games. More specifically, basketball and Fortnite.

Both agree Ben is clearly the more talented one when it comes to the indoor activity, but Max believes his work rate is the reason he’s on top in hoops.

“It’s just whoever wants it more on the day, I think. It’s whoever is willing to put their body on the line …” he laughed. “I’ve been in form, lately. I don’t think Ben can argue with that.”

“Home-court advantage,” Ben retorted.

Home-court advantage? Well, well, well. Maybe that "go home" factor that has plagued Gold Coast since their inception is finally beginning to dissipate, after all.

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