A British and Irish Lions tour of anywhere – let alone South Africa, the home of the reigning world champions – may represent the great snow-encrusted peak on rugby's magic mountain, but when the brains trust for next summer's high-intensity tour of Springbok country was formally unveiled yesterday, a clear majority of its members were simply relieved to be away from the pressure of their day jobs. With the head coach Ian McGeechan and the defence specialist Shaun Edwards wondering when Wasps might next win a game, and the forwards strategist Warren Gatland deep in political conflict with the regional sides who supply the players for his Wales team, only Rob Howley, the least experienced of the quartet, seemed more concerned at the challenges of the future than the issues of the present.
As widely anticipated, Howley will coach the backs. "The last trip to South Africa, in 1997, was the best tour of my playing career and the worst memory," said the former Wales scrum-half and captain, referring to a tour on which he played brilliantly in the early stages, only to see his Test ambitions ruined by injury. "This is the next chapter in my Lions association and I consider myself lucky to be involved at so early a stage in my coaching career. The important thing will be to recapture the spirit of '97, to recreate that wonderfully positive environment." It will be easier said than done in this harsher, more cynical rugby age, but if anyone can perform the trick, McGeechan can, with his long history of Lions service and his profound understanding of the team's unique ethos. The 61 year-old Scot, who will turn 62 next week, confirmed yesterday that the 2009 venture would be his last, and that he would be ending with a bang. "This 10-match tour will see us play the equivalent of seven Six Nations games and three World Cup finals," he remarked.
He also confirmed that he would seek another series victory over the Boks without the help of the hosts' recently departed World Cup-winning coach, Jake White. Earlier this week, White was quoted by a newspaper in South Africa as suggesting that he might join the Lions in a consultative capacity, having failed to secure a new position in the Springbok hierarchy after quitting as head coach 11 months ago. McGeechan put paid to that idea.
"I've known Jake since 2001 and he left a message for me a few days ago, saying it would be nice to meet up for a coffee and a chinwag," McGeechan reported. "That's as far as it went. There was no discussion of a consultancy role." McGeechan will announce a "contenders" squad of around 65 in January before gathering fresh evidence over the course of the Six Nations and deciding on the tour group, which will number between 35 and 37 – significantly fewer than the bloated party whitewashed and humiliated by New Zealand in 2005. There was no overt criticism of Sir Clive Woodward, the head coach on that trip, when the latest vintage convened yesterday, but as John Feehan, the Lions chief executive, said: "We've learnt the lessons of '05. You're a fool if you don't learn from the past."
Next year's three Tests will be played at sea level in Durban, and on the high veld in Pretoria and Johannesburg. "We would have preferred two Tests on the coast and one at altitude," Feehan admitted. "But the capacity at the Newlands stadium in Cape Town is about 12,000 short of the necessary for an international match on this scale, and with around 50,000 supporters expected to follow the Lions, the reality is that we need to be in venues where we can best fit people in. Anyway, our medical advice says that the modern professional player can stand up to two games at altitude without feeling disadvantaged."
Brian O'Driscoll, who led the Lions three years ago, has retained the Ireland captaincy for the forthcoming internationals with Canada, New Zealand and Argentina.Reuse content