Strength in unity a tested McGeechan formula

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The Independent Online

When Sir Clive Woodward invited Ian McGeechan to join his formidable coaching team for the Lions tour to New Zealand the Scot was surprised and delighted, but it didn't stop him laying down a vital condition - there would be no them and us.

McGeechan, a supreme Lion as player and coach in a career spanning more than three decades, has seen too many tour parties unravel as the Test team went one way and the midweek side another, usually in the direction of the nearest bar. "When Clive rang me and asked if I fancied going to New Zealand I replied that of course I did, but on the understanding that the players travelled as one group,'' McGeechan says. "He agreed. In my experience, if you have a split party you have an unsuccessful tour. The ethos of the Lions has to be all for one and one for all.''

The Lions have won only one series in New Zealand, in 1971 when Carwyn James almost single-handedly plotted the All Blacks' downfall. Up to 80 men from the home countries will undertake the 11-match, six-week tour in June and July, including a 27-strong management team.

"This is about us in the British Isles wanting to be the best whatever the cost,'' Woodward says. "Look at the resources the All Blacks will throw at this and then tell me we're being extravagant.''

Woodward is expected to work with his England successor Andy Robinson, the Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan and the England defence coach Phil Larder, while McGeechan, the Llanelli coach Gareth Jenkins and Mike Ford, the Ireland defensive coach, form a second front, all under the managership of Bill Beaumont.

"It's important for people to realise,'' McGeechan points out, "that because there are two support groups it doesn't mean there'll be two preordained teams. Every player has to have the chance of staking his claim. That means no early decisions. If the midweek performances are positive that can drive the Test team, but the door has to be open. There's a tradition of players who may not be recognised as internationals becoming Lions, and that's something that should not be lost.

"I was very impressed with the All Blacks on their recent tour, and one of the most striking things is the strength of their coaching team. They know not only about British rugby but the Lions, and that can be invaluable. It's not something they had in the past. I think we're going to have to be a bit special to win it.''

Woodward describes the All Blacks coach, Graham Henry, and his assistants, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, as the "most potent brains trust in New Zealand history". It is some claim and has yet to be verified, but McGeechan's point is valid - their opponents have experience of insider trading.

Few would have anticipated that Henry, appointed as Lions coach on the 2001 tour to Australia when he was in charge of Wales, would be the archi-tect of the All Blacks for the 2005 Lions visit. Hansen, as Henry's successor in the Principality, and Smith, a former coach of Northampton, form a trinity whose interest in professional rugby in this country almost amounts to incest.

The logical choice as Lions coach four years ago was Woodward; his pre-eminent England provided the bulk of the party, including the captain, Martin Johnson, but the series was lost 2-1, Henry having to put up with some behaviour, particularly from England players, that belonged in a schoolyard.

Actually, it's McGeechan's fault. Following his tour of South Africa in 1997, when he coached a squad led by Johnson, he was offered the post for the assignment in Australia but declined, citing his duties with Scotland as being of paramount importance.

"Being head coach of the Lions involves nine months' planning and is a huge respon-sibility," McGeechan says. "I think Clive's relieved that he's not doing this job while still coaching England. It would make it very onerous.''

This will be McGeechan's fourth tour in a management role, having been first seduced by the Lions when selected for the politically volatileengage-ment in South Africa in 1974. At the time he was a centre for Headingley.

"We had to meet up at a London hotel, and I'll never forget walking into the reception and seeing Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Willie John McBride. I'd watched some of the '71 Lions in New Zealand and been absolutely thrilled. To be involved three years later with the same players meant I was like a little boy in a sweet shop. My first thought was that I'd better make sure I didn't let myself down.''

McGeechan feels you should let sleeping Lions lie, which means the retirement from Test rugby of players like Johnson should mean just that. "Martin was the epitome of a Lions captain in that he had the respect of all the players from each of the four home countries and stood out as a Test competitor. When you retire you're out of that arena and are mentally off the pace. It's difficult to get it back.

"Whoever is the captain won't be the same as Martin Johnson, but he will have to have an influence on everybody. We've already had a few meetings and there's a buzz, a very good feeling. The challenge is that you're working with highly talented individuals in a powerful and totally unique environment. We'll win only if everything comes together and everybody's involved. When you get it right it's like no other feeling.''