When Cotton bumped and bruised his way through the unbeaten Lions' 1974 romp as a hard-case prop under Willie John McBride, finely honed management skills were as alien to rugby as peaceableness is to Mike Tyson. "We didn't even have a doctor," he recalled last week. "We wasted huge amounts of time travelling to various towns in search of physiotherapy or treatment. It was an absolute nightmare, looking back; the kind of experience that persuaded me that we had to be utterly self-reliant on this tour if we were to stand any chance of success."
When Cotton beat his old England and Lions confrere Bill Beaumont to the managerial post in the spring of last year, he immediately set about piecing together a back-room team capable of dealing with any and every eventuality. A successful businessman in his own right, he brought a sense of corporate organisation to the task and if his success in finding the right men for the right behind-the-scenes jobs was not quite as important as picking the right players, it was a mighty close-run thing.
"I always envisaged that the Lions party would be modelled on a business structure with the manager acting as a chief executive and appointing key people as he saw fit. We came up with a senior management group consisting of myself, Ian McGeechan as head coach, James Robson as tour doctor, Bob Burrows as the media liaison specialist and Stan Bagshaw, whose job title of baggage master does nowhere near enough justice to the importance of his role as logistical organiser for the entire Lions company. By creating that group, we covered every angle and every discipline.
"In turn, Ian and James then headed up their own specialist committees. Ian would meet with Jim Telfer, Dave Alred and Andy Keast on a daily basis to organise the coaching while James worked closely with Mark Davies, Richard Wegrzyk and Dave McLean - the physio, masseur and fitness adviser - on the medical side. In my book, James has been the unsung hero of this tour; no one actually sees the amount of work he puts in, but I can tell you he carries out an average of 50 treatments a day.
"Everything was aimed at making life as straightforward as possible for the players and while it's been 12 months of very hard work, there is considerable satisfaction in the fact that it has gone like clockwork since we've been here. The key was self-containment, a refusal to rely on anyone for anything. I didn't want a situation in which we would spend half our time buggering about in a vain attempt to persuade other people to organise things for us. It you want it done properly, do it yourself."
If the support staff were selected with the greatest care and attention, the players themselves were weighed and assessed with equal meticulousness. Four secondary selectors, one from each home nation, joined Cotton and McGeechan on the initial panel: Peter Rossborough from England, Derek Quinnell from Wales, Ian Lawrie from Scotland and Donal Lenihan from the Emerald Isle. Each concentrated on his specialist area - Quinnell, who made three Lions trips between 1971 and 1980, had a big say in the make-up of the loose forward contingent, for example - and between them, they watched hundreds of games across the length and breadth of the British Isles.
"By the time we got together for our preparation week in Weybridge in May, we were convinced we had the right people on board," said Cotton. "Those few days were fundamental to what we have achieved here because it was during that period that we became a team. There was very little training in the traditional sense - most of the activity seemed to centre on canoeing and stacking beer crates - but we talked through the issues that were going to arise and developed the mindset we needed.
"There are always going to be difficult moments on any trip and we had to hammer out a common approach. Were players going to throw the toys out of the pram if they missed out on Test selection, or were they going to support each other to the absolute limit? Collectively, we decided that we were all in it together. By the time we boarded the plane to Johannesburg, we were united."
During the tour, an axis of senior players developed. Martin Johnson, the captain, was always going to be involved, as were the experienced triumvirate of Ieuan Evans, Rob Wainwright and Jason Leonard. Lawrence Dallaglio quickly established himself as another conduit between management and workforce and, later, Tim Rodber emerged as a sixth key contributor.
Yet one thing could not be foreseen: the precise make-up of the Test side. Like any manager, Cotton had his ideas about half-back combinations and front-row collectives but the selection process going into the opening match of the rubber in Cape Town was distinguished by a genuine open-mindedness amongst those making the hard decisions.
"If you ask me to identify the defining moment of the tour, it was the victory over Gauteng 11 days before the Newlands Test," revealed Cotton. "It was then that our pre-conceived notions about who might face the Springboks began to disappear.
"Gauteng was critical for us. We had just been beaten by Northern Transvaal and had we lost again at Ellis Park, it would have put a big dent in our morale. As it turned out, the forwards stood up to a hard-scrummaging pack and came out on top; so suddenly, guys like Tom Smith and Paul Wallace and Jeremy Davidson were in the Test frame.
"But what impressed me most was the reaction of those players in the stand. By the time the blokes came off the pitch and walked to the dressing room, every single non-playing member of the party had made their way to the door from all parts of the stadium to cheer them in. They were whooping and shouting like never before, because they knew what had been achieved that night, that the tour was back on the road. It was indescribable, really. I suppose you'd call it team spirit."Reuse content