Edwards and Hastings on what it means to be a Lion

With the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa looming on the horizon, we pick the brains of two living legends who did the famous red jersey proud
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When it comes to British and Irish Lions greats, they don't come much bigger or better than Gareth Edwards and Gavin Hastings.

Welsh wizard Edwards was an instrumental figure in the victorious Lions tours of New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa in 1974. Scotland full-back Hastings skippered the 1993 tour of New Zealand and has scored more points than any other Lion, racking up a total of 66 after also featuring on the winning tour of Australia in 1989.

Q: Okay, gentlemen, tell us what it means to be a Lion.

GARETH EDWARDS: I think you appreciate it more after you become a Lion because you understand what it means and you make wonderful friendships that stand the test of time. When you're growing up, the first thing you want to do is represent your country. Once you have won your first international cap you realise there is another tier that boasts a fine history and tradition. It is something special.

GAVIN HASTINGS: Being a Lion and putting on that famous red jersey and realising all these wonderful historic world greats who have worn it before you makes you realise how much tradition goes with the Lions. Like everything that comes around every four years, it means so much more. It was the greatest honour I ever had, particularly being captain.

Q: So history and tradition are a major part of the British and Irish Lions, even to the players?

GE: We didn't have DVDs back then but we used to read books about the Lions in my day. They added to the mystique. I read about epic encounters and six-week journeys with old Lions players scrummaging on the deck of their boat. It made me want to be a part of that. I would look at pictures of great players like Tony O'Reilly and Cliff Morgan and understand the history of the Lions. When you become a part of that you try to write your own history.

GH: Gareth would not have the status he has today was it not for winning with the Lions in 1971 and 1974. All these players - Gareth, Willie John McBride - are known for their heroics with the Lions and not for their individual countries. Yes, Gareth was part of the great Welsh side of the 1970s but I wouldn't know how many Grand Slams they won. Yet I instinctively know they won in 1971 and 1974. Those Lions tours were the making of them.

Q: Gareth, what are your memories of that 1974 team that went unbeaten in 22 games and won three Tests against South Africa?

GE: Willie John McBride was a great leader for us and we had an exceptionally good team that was experienced from the previous tour to New Zealand. We had experience in the spine of the team and that was very important when it mattered. And we had a great bunch of forwards, which you always need in South Africa.

You need to have that physical presence. It's all very well to say, 'We have great backs.' But if you don't have the ball you can't play with it. Our strength was that everybody was prepared to dig in and stand up for the cause.

Q: Looking ahead to this

summer's tour, what kind of players will Ian McGeechan need to be successful?

GE: You need all your top players playing well. You need a nucleus of guys who have been there and done it on Lions tours. That helps, especially if they are still playing well. And you want guys who have a lot of resolve because it is a tough tour.

On the pitch, you want match-winners and off the field you want guys who can mix well because this is unlike anything else they will experience. It's difficult when you talk about individuals because there are very few dead certs.

GH: I'm a massive believer in form. Form should be number one and then if there are players who are much of a muchness then, yes, you're going to take the more experienced guy.

It's a lot easier playing in a winning team - representation from countries who are struggling is going to be low.

Wales and Ireland are on a bit of a roll and are playing with a lot of confidence. There is a reason Wales and Ireland have done well and it's because they've got more good players than England and Scotland. It's not rocket science.

GE: The first XV will be made up of a lot of Wales and Ireland players. I cannot see too many players being chosen from countries who have not won many games in the Six Nations. There will still be individuals who go on tour but tradition has always dictated the more successful teams are better represented in the Test team.

I will be fascinated to see how many youngsters make it and I'm also looking forward to seeing Brian O'Driscoll on the hard grounds of South Africa. He's back in form and I think he can make a real contribution.

Q: What kind of a challenge does touring South Africa present?

GE: They are tough guys to play against and their very upbringing means they are hardy, tough people from farming stock.

They love their rugby and they never know when they're beaten. The pace of the game is that much faster on the dry ground and playing at altitude takes a while to get used to. And it's different playing at altitude compared to training because the adrenalin is flowing more in a game.

Plus, the ball goes further so you have to be tactically aware of where you position yourself. It is a tough place to go and each team will be strong. There are some provinces that are every bit as good as a Test team.

GH: I played in the World Cup in 1995 but have never played South Africa in their country. But I have watched South African sides for a long time and they are undoubtedly the most competitive bunch of individuals I have ever faced. They don't know the meaning of quitting - they are competitive to the last and I admire that in any sports team. The Springboks epitomise that never-say-die attitude more than any team I have ever watched. That presents a huge challenge for the Lions.

Q: How important is it to get off to a good start?

GH: You have a hell of a chance of winning a series if you can win that first Test match. The key is to determine how you are going to beat the Springboks on day one. Whatever it takes, you have to get 15 guys plus seven off the bench totally committed to winning that first Test.

GE: The crux of this tour will come after selection is made and the excitement of who is going to South Africa dies down and they get into the hard work of preparation. There will be seven matches outside of those Tests and it's important that everybody feels they have a chance to make the Test team.

Q: Would it be fair to say that was not the case on the last Lions tour in 2005?

GH: Totally. I don't think it's been the case for the last two tours and that's the fault of the management team. Every player must feel involved and in with a chance of making the Test team.

Back in 1993, selection was easy because you knew nothing was going to get in the way of the form guys getting promoted to the Test team if they were playing well enough.

GE: What giving everyone a chance does is cement team spirit. There's nothing worse than being on the sidelines in any sport.

Q: So Sir Clive Woodward got it wrong in New Zealand?

GE: I think the large squad was a contributory factor. It's easy to criticise the 2005 tour because they had a pre-conceived idea about the team. And where that doesn't work for you is when you get a few injuries, as the 2005 Lions did, because then you have problems. All the players will recognise they have a chance at the Test team this time around and that will be good.

Each player had his own room on the 2005 tour and maybe that was not the right thing to do. Rooming together is also good for team spirit - when you're close like that you talk and you're there for each other. Being close really helps.

GH: I think this is the best coaching team they could have put together and I'm very excited about it. They must have learned their lessons from four years ago and undoubtedly there were lessons to be learned. Looking back, if taking such a large squad to New Zealand was the way forward, what kind of message would that have sent out if it were successful? I don't think any of us Lions believed that was a recipe for success.