Rugby Union: Redman at heart of the red men

Rise of the dirt-trackers: Far from being a B team, the big hit- men have kept spirits high on the flipside; Chris Hewett talks to one of the supporting cast who played a major role

Nigel Redman has always been big on team spirit but when the Bath second-row and his midweek Lions boarded an ancient, propeller-driven plane for their journey to the back end of beyond last Tuesday morning, he quite legitimately wondered whether the single-minded sense of purpose that has been such a feature of this tour might begin to wane.

"The aircraft was straight out of Indiana Jones and I'm not sure the pilot knew which way to go, because he took twice as long to get us there as we took to get back," said Redman of the now infamous trip to Bloemfontein for the match with the high veld titans of Free State. "It was not the best preparation, to say the least; the whole episode had 'chaos' written all over it. I can honestly say I've never been quite so nervous before a match. To be captaining the Lions was beyond my wildest dreams, I was desperate for everything to go right and there we were in the middle of Bloem, our planning and build-up in tatters."

To Redman's profound relief, his players responded as they had responded for Jason Leonard, Rob Wainwright, Tim Rodber and Martin Johnson at earlier points in the tour; that is to say, they stood up to be counted. The Lions put 50 points on a Free State side rated the best in South Africa on present form and in so doing underlined their reputation as the most united Lions party since Willie-John McBride's immortals took the Springboks to the cleaners 23 years ago.

Irrespective of the eventual result of the Test series, Fran Cotton, Ian McGeechan and the rest of the tour hierarchy have succeeded in setting new standards of managerial expertise during their six weeks in South Africa. Indeed, they have laid down a clear and distinctive marker for future tours by investing root and branch in the collective ethic - something the 1993 Lions' management, of which McGeechan was a member, signally failed to do.

Reared in the fierce but deeply supportive environment of the Bath dressing- room, Redman knows team spirit when he sees it and is in no doubt that the high-risk policy of continually mixing and matching the midweek and Saturday teams stands at the very heart of the Lions' achievements on this tour. "It was crucially important that the two sides should never be identified as separate entities, because things can easily go pear- shaped when players begin to feel surplus to requirements.

"If you look at the various line-ups that have taken the field at different times, you'll see that a large number of players have turned out both on Saturdays and in midweek. I'm not denying that those who played in the First Test and beat the Springboks put themselves ahead of the rest of us in selection terms but by the same yardstick, who would have named those particular 21 players in the Test squad when the party was announced or, indeed, when the tour got under way? There has been a genuine feeling among all of us that anything is possible. That has to be good for morale.

"I can't praise the situation enough because both sides have contributed fully. If this party learned one thing from the 1993 Lions tour of New Zealand, when the midweek matches went badly wrong towards the end, it was that no one should go home with the sort of label those guys had to carry around with them. People let themselves down on that tour but here the mood is very different. Perhaps it's professionalism, a feeling that it's one thing to be a Lion but quite another to be a successful Lion, one able to hold his head up high and say to the world, 'I did my bit'."

Few players offer a more sincere appraisal of rugby life than Redman, whose reputation as an open, honest-to-goodness, on the level forward has been forged over 13 years of unstinting, uncomplaining commitment to the game he loves. His playing career is almost at an end now - in all probability, he will give it one last season at Bath before concentrating on coaching - so this last hurrah south of the equator is an emotional one, exciting and satisfying and poignant in equal measure.

"One of the aspects that pleases me most is that we've exploded at least some of the myths surrounding Super 12 rugby. By repeatedly outlasting sides and beating them in the last 15 or 20 minutes, we've proved that fitness and mental cohesion can in fact be stronger among British and Irish players than in the southern hemisphere. And without being arrogant, we've done it by playing the sort of rugby to which Bath, at their best, aspire.

"To my mind, the rugby league influence has been enormous. In the past, British sides - not just in rugby but cricket and soccer as well - have failed to match the mental strength of their opponents, but with players like Alan Tait, Allan Bateman, John Bentley and Scott Gibbs on this trip, the 80-minute mentality has been instilled in all of us.

"Everyone is switched on and clued in, not just occasionally but permanently. In league, a careless try conceded in the last few minutes costs money as well as points and those who have been professional sportsmen for some considerable time tend to work very hard to make sure it doesn't happen. It may sound mercenary, but it's a powerful motivation."

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