"This is all very nice," said Graham Rowntree, scrum doctor to the 2009 British and Irish Lions, as the party bade farewell to loved ones over tea and sandwiches in the baronial surroundings of a country hotel in sun-roasted Surrey yesterday. "But we'll do well to remember that it won't be quite as nice when we get to South Africa. We've had a good week's preparation – excellent, in fact – but the tour doesn't start until the first game is upon us."
That game takes place this coming Saturday in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg, a few dozen miles north-west of Johannesburg, and almost a fifth of the party have already been ruled out of selection. All were involved in important club activity over the previous 48 hours: six of them – the Leinster quartet of Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney, plus Tom Croft and Harry Ellis of Leicester – in the Heineken Cup final, and one, the Northampton prop Euan Murray, in the European Challenge Cup final.
"I'm perfectly comfortable with the fact that the Leinster boys, in particular, arrived here having had a good deal of alcohol and very little sleep," said Ian McGeechan, the head coach, who is uniquely experienced in how Lions tours work. "They won the Heineken Cup, after all – a great moment for any player. When people are involved in finals, they need proper rest and recuperation, proper management. All could play in Rustenburg if needed, but what's the point of throwing them straight in when almost 30 others have spent three or four days training together?"
McGeechan, who coached the Lions to their last victory in Springbok country a dozen years ago, believes this trip has a higher degree of difficulty attached to it. "Back in '97, South African rugby was not as strong or settled in its structure as it is now," he said. In addition, he has had his preparations, badly truncated by the length of the northern hemisphere club season, further undermined by four injuries – three of them tour-ending before the start of the tour – and a suspension. Did he feel blighted? "Not at all," he replied. "I couldn't ask for anything more than what we've achieved together over the last few days. We're happy with where we are."
He stopped well short of promising that the Boks would be beaten, but he at least believes them to be beatable. As does his second-in-command, the one-time All Black hooker Warren Gatland, whose native Waikato will, by coincidence, be playing a Super 14 final down the road in Pretoria on the same day as the Rustenburg fixture. "The thing is, a lot of these players have experienced success over the last couple of years – Grand Slams for the Welsh and Irish players, European and domestic titles for many others – and grown to like it," he said. "It's the kind of thing that makes a difference to the psychological make-up of a team. The winning habit is self-nourishing."Reuse content