South Africa tour: My Lions will be a different animal
Geech and Gerald are the dream ticket and aim to restore the feelgood factor after the 2005 fiasco
Sir Clive Woodward did it his way for the 2005 tour to New Zealand – an unlimited budget and a huge cast – and the whitewash at the hands of the All Blacks was so painful there were fears the Lions could be an endangered species. In a conscious effort to distance themselves from that fiasco, the 2009 model for the South Africa tour will be a very different animal.
For a start there is the dream ticket of Gerald Davies as manager and Ian McGeechan as head coach, and it is nigh-on impossible to meet two more popular personalities in the game. One was a brilliant Lions wing, the other a centre, and to listen to them waxing lyrical at a press conference in London they sounded like brothers in arms.
"To have Ian wearing the tracksuit is a huge privilege for us," Davies said. "There will be one jersey, one philosophy, one style. It will be something to cherish and for the players to treasure. We intend to live up to the tradition. A Lions tour is the last great rugby adventure."
There was plenty more where that came from.
McGeechan was involved in the only successful element of the ill-fated tour to New Zealand three years ago – he coached the unbeaten midweek side – but this time there will be fundamental differences. The Lions are returning to basics.
Woodward's bloated squad ended up exceeding 50. This one will be condensed to about 35, and the practice of room sharing will be restored. There will be no spin doctor – Alastair Campbell was the 2005 press officer – and there will be no "them and us" whereby the first team and the rest were so segregated they may as well have been operating on different planets. And there will not be a host of coaches. McGeechan will have no more than three or four assistants.
"It will be a very tightly-knit group," Davies said, "and every player will be challenging for a Test place. There's no point entering a competition if you can't be the best. You can't have players cast aside. If you take hope away why would they want to be on the tour in the first place?
"If you're playing a game of cards, Monopoly or snakes and ladders you want to win. But I don't think that in order to be a winner you need to be a miserable person. We want this to be an enjoyable tour. Geech is still the best and he sets the benchmark. A couple of coaches didn'tfulfil their promise and others pulled out of the reckoning."
A refreshing philosophy has been established, but results will determine whether the adventure is enjoyable and successful. There are three Tests in a 10-match tour, and McGeechan compared the challenge to playing three World Cup finals against the world champions.
"There is no other feeling like rubbing shoulders in a Lions jersey," the Scotsman said. "We will have four countries playing as one, and our aim is to put a marker down in South Africa. If I had not been coaching full-time at Wasps I wouldn't have considered taking this on, but when I had another scent of Lions rugby three years ago I realised how important it is to me and the players. I wake up in the morning and think, 'Crikey, I'm doing this for a job'. I still pinch myself. This is special, unique, and you can't compare it with anything else."
Comparisons were made between McGeechan and the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. The connection came from the former Lions and Scotland full-back Andy Irvine, who is chairman of the Lions board. "Ian has been on six previous tours, two as a player,three as head coach and one as assistant coach," Irvine said. "His record, the most successful in Lions' history, speaks for itself. We looked at other coaches but time and again we came back to Ian. At 62 he's still as fit as a flea, but the question was whether the hunger was still there. The answer is he's as enthusiastic as ever, which is why he reminds me of Sir Alex. If you conducted a straw poll among players of who would be their dream coach, Geech would get the majority of the vote. He's been at the top for 20 years. He was on the last tour of New Zealand and he knows how things can be improved."
This was a veiled attack on the 2005 expedition. "I was surprised at the number of people involved," Irvine said. "There is an element of unfinished business for the Lions. A few years ago there was some doubt as to whether we would continue, but we're as popular as ever. We could take 50,000 supporters to South Africa. We have to make up for what happened in New Zealand. This time we have the best coach available and there will be greater unity. The leadership of Gerald and Geech will make it an even more interesting and happy tour."
McGeechan will pick the brains of the former Lions Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill. Johnson was his captain when they won the Test series in South Africa in 1997. "Johnno's appointment as England team manager couldn't be better," McGeechan said. "He was the ultimate Lions captain, second to none, and this will be a huge advantage for us."
Fixture congestion at the end of next season, not to mention inevitable injuries and the Experimental Law Variations, will make life difficult for the Lions, who are due to play their first game on the high veldt the same day as the Guinness Premiership final at Twickenham. McGeechan was confident the issue would be resolved, although the elite clubs may want to see the colour ofthe Lions' money before reaching a compromise.
Very deliberately, a feelgood factor has been restored to the brand of the British and Irish Lions. "In 2005 we went out for the occasional pint," said McGeechan. "Maybe in 2009 the whole group will go out for a drink."
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