Rugby Union: Cooke masters balancing act: The silky skills of the manager have ensured the Lions have always struck the right note. Chris Rea reports

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The Independent Online
A LETTER was slipped under Geoff Cooke's door just 48 hours before the third Test, one of the world's great sporting confrontations, and perhaps the biggest match in Cooke's experience as a team manager. It was from a lady trying to locate her pen friend from the Second World War who, she thought, now worked in a post office somewhere in Wales. Could Cooke possibly trace her whereabouts? Another request was for a Lions jersey to drape over the coffin of a Welshman who was being buried at Wanganui.

Every Cooke in the country has already claimed kinship with the Lions' manager who, since the start of the tour, has received more than 100 letters and faxes a week. Most of them he has responded to, a tiresome operation, but one which Cooke sees as part of the job.

A veteran of almost 50 international matches with England and on his fourth major tour, Cooke can justifiably claim to be the most experienced team manager in world rugby. But this tour, he knew, would be very different, hence the thought and detailed planning which preceded it. 'I fully appreciated that this would be the most demanding job I had ever undertaken. First of all because of the intensity of the play on the field and the all-consuming interest off it. And because it was a Lions tour, it meant that I had to start from scratch getting to know players from the other three countries.' This he has done with a determination and enthusiasm which have banished the destructive forces of nationalism.

Since the Lions first gathered for the pre-tour training session in April, Cooke has insisted on full integration. No cliques, no national prejudice. 'I even forbade the players from wearing national emblems on the training field so that they would realise that they were not English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh, but British.' Cooke's task in this respect was made all the harder by the fact the bulk of the touring party were English, but there have been no charges of favouritism on this tour. Almost without exception, the English players have performed above last season's domestic form, and in the cases of the young forwards Leonard, Bayfield, Johnson, and Clarke, far above expectation.

Cooke's tour has mercifully avoided most of the black holes into which so many of his predecessors have disappeared. Comfortable in his dealings with the media, he has fended off the fastest deliveries with consummate ease, and in so doing has protected the Lions from the vitriol which their recent midweek performances have deserved. He has clearly defined his role on this tour, although he admits that it is very different to the one he enjoys with England. 'My main job is to ensure that Ian McGeechan and Dick Best are given everything they need to get on with the business of coaching the team. If that means ordering a bus or ensuring that there are enough tackle bags for training, so be it.'

One suspects, however, that Cooke misses the 'hands-on' approach he has taken with England, and that occasionally he finds the chores irksome and demeaning. 'I have to admit that there have been times here when I wondered whether I should stay on as England's team manager, but obviously I would like to take the side into the next World Cup in two years' time.' New Zealand has done much worse than that to Lions managers, some of whom have been permanently scarred by the experience. This will not happen to Cooke.

The tour has been a happy one. The players, by and large, have been gregarious and popular with the locals. Moreover, they have been remarkably well behaved. Where their predecessors have indulged in hotel demolition (some of it admittedly justified given the quality of the accommodation), and horseplay, the 1993 Lions have proved to be excellent ambassadors, offering the hand of friendship from Whangarei to Invercargill. They have also succeeded in striking the right balance between business and pleasure, and it was noticeable at Thursday's training session, the most intense of the tour, that there was still a little time for spontaneous frivolity. 'That was a good sign,' said Cooke, 'and it is at moments such as these that I am confirmed in my view that Lions tours must continue.

'Like many others, I am concerned that the World Cup and the increased touring commitments of the four home countries will imperil future Lions tours. But every player that I have spoken to has been in favour of the concept and most on this tour will have benefited in one way or another from the experience. They have a clearer understanding of the game and a closer relationship with players from the other home countries. Many of them will be returning home wiser men and better players.'

(Photograph omitted)