McGeechan's blueprint for Lions success

A veteran of seven Lions tours and with two series victories in South Africa under his belt, Ian McGeechan has written the book on Lions glory
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The Independent Online

Having masterminded series wins over Australia in 1989 and then world champions South Africa in 1997, Ian McGeechan was a welcome choice as head coach of the 2009 British and Irish Lions.

The former Scotland centre has a wealth of experience with the Lions. He played in the 1974 series victory in South Africa and in all four Tests in New Zealand three years later. He also came desperately close to coaching the Lions to victory over the All Blacks in 1993.

In 2005, McGeechan played second fiddle to Sir Clive Woodward as a member of his 26-man backroom staff and basically saw how not to run a tour as the Lions were whitewashed by the All Blacks.

So how will the London Wasps director of rugby engineer a series victory over the reigning world champion Springboks in 2009? By referring to his own Lions' coaching bible, of course.

Small is beautiful

Clive Woodward took 45 players to New Zealand with him and called up a further six following injuries, inflating his squad to a whopping 51. The problem was that many of that squad knew they would get nowhere near the Test side and were going through the motions.

McGeechan was charged with running the midweek team and it became a virtual separate entity, albeit an undefeated one. As a result, the squad was divided and lacked unity and spirit. McGeechan will take a much smaller team - most likely 35 players - to South Africa with everyone in the frame for Test honours.

"We'll have one set of coaches for midweek and Saturday sides," McGeechan insists. "We need to give everyone a chance to challenge for a Test spot.

"We've got three World Cup finals to play against the world champions and that unity, that ability to draw together, is critical."

Be competitive in training

McGeechan preaches the basics in training but also is not afraid to have his players be aggressive towards one another in a bid to prepare them for the serious Tests looming on the horizon.

Jeremy Guscott recalls the 1997 Lions tour, saying: "He had us knocking lumps out of each other in training. The forwards crawled off the pitch at the end of every session. What we didn't realise was that he had worked out that defence would be the key to stopping South Africa. He already had the script for that series-clinching second Test in Durban in his head."

Create an underdog mentality

Maybe it comes from dealing with limited resources at Scotland or maybe he is just a genius at getting inside his players' heads. Whatever the reason, McGeechan is absolutely spot on when it comes to creating and nurturing an underdog and 'us against the world' mentality.

When the South African media labelled the 1997 Lions "pussycats", McGeechan couldn't have been happier. He latched onto the comments, showed them to the entire squad and then invited the likes of Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Paul Wallace and Jason Leonard to shove them down the Springbok throats.

He has also been happy to make his London Wasps feel they are underdogs with a point to prove - and they did so twice in recent times against the Leicester Tigers (in last season's Heineken Cup final and in the 2005 Guinness Premiership final in Johnson's final game as a professional). McGeechan is more than happy to have his teams play the spoiler role.

Sink a pint or two

The Lions have always been about team unity, camaraderie and tradition. That appeared to end under Woodward's control in 2005. Under McGeechan, players will go back to sharing rooms and will be encouraged to bond socially away from the pitch.

That means players will not be frowned upon for sinking a well-earned pint. McGeechan took his midweek team out during the 2005 tour and built a good spirit among the players, as BBC pundit Matt Dawson explains: "When the first team was getting beaten by New Zealand in the Tests, the midweek side were not only winning games but forging the camaraderie and friendship that is imperative for a successful Lions tour."

"I enjoyed the group of players I was working with in 2005 and we did go out for a pint midweek when everybody else had disappeared," McGeechan laughs. "Maybe in 2009 we will go out for a pint as a whole group."

McGeechan has always looked to form a close bond with his players. When the Lions won the 1997 series in South Africa he shaved his head after promising to do so if the tourists were successful.

Don't be afraid to go against your beliefs

McGeechan is a rugby romantic who loves to chew the fat over the sport and he loves free-flowing, open and adventurous rugby. But while he is an innovator and creative thinker, he is not afraid to change his approach if it brings victory at the end of 80 minutes.

The Lions' series win over the South Africans in 1997 was more about tactical know-how, hard work and muscle than entertaining, running rugby. The tourists targeted dangerous fly-half Henry Honiball and completely nullified him as an attacking threat. McGeechan was willing to sacrifice his attacking preferences for the good of the team.

"It was a great tactical victory," said Lions captain Martin Johnson. "We put together a scheme to nullify Honiball and he had very little impact. We took him out of the series. That was a case of Ian McGeechan assessing the situation, working on a scheme and getting us as players to understand the scheme and while we were playing that way."