Twenty-three years ago, the Sunday drinking school attained legendary status but now The Boozers, The Wreckers and The Burners have finally called it a day

After a fortnight away, Chris Hewett detects a marked difference in approach to the social side of rugby union between the first fully professional Lions party and some of its famous predecessors
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Willie John McBride would scarcely recognise it as a rugby tour; indeed, he might feel he had mistakenly stumbled into a vicarage tea party or accidentally joined a Franciscan study group on an away-day break from the local monastery. Unlike the Lions of, say, 1968 or 1974, the current vintage are on their very best behaviour. Eggs are broken by the dozen, but only at breakfast time; alcohol is consumed, but only with the aid of a pipette and no-one would even dream of running riot with a fire extinguisher. Unless, of course, there was a fire.

Strange days indeed, made stranger by the fact that both Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan, the two top dogs of the Lions' 12-strong backroom staff, were confreres of McBride in South Africa on that famous, infamous 1974 junket. Twenty-three years ago, the Sunday drinking school attained legendary status - at least, it did as soon as the participants sobered up sufficiently to remember the details - but The Boozers, The Wreckers and The Burners, traditional splinter groups of any self-respecting British Isles tour party, have finally called it a day and pushed off to bed.

Which is not to say that Martin Johnson and his colleagues have divorced themselves from the concept of fun. Far from it, for the early evidence suggests that this particular squad of players are getting along like, er, a hotel on fire. "There are 35 of us here, which means some will not get as much rugby as they would like, but as we speak there has been no hint of a problem," said Lawrence Dallaglio, captain of Wasps and, at 24, one of the tour party's most influential figures.

Dallaglio is one of five "team leaders", a select band of strong characters, both liked and respected by their peers, who act as a first line of management, a conduit between the rank and file and the top brass. The others are Johnson, Jason Leonard, Ieuan Evans and Rob Wainwright and each has responsibility for the welfare of half a dozen colleagues. "If there is discontent for any reason, the player concerned will go to his team leader as an initial step," explained Cotton. "It may be that the situation can be dealt with immediately, without recourse to myself or the coaches. The idea is to get players taking responsibility."

The fear of factionalism, which badly undermined the 1993 Lions in New Zealand, has concentrated managerial minds wonderfully and it is one of the articles of faith on this trip that the English players - and there are 18 of them - always room with one of their celtic brethren. "It's not as difficult to organise as it sounds," said Stan Bagshaw, the baggage master, who draws up the room roster before departure for a new hotel. "As captain, Johnno gets a single. Only fair, that. Then I simply write the names of the other 17 Englishmen down one side of a piece of paper and mix and match the Welsh, Scottish and Irish. It works a treat and has helped bond the party together."

Such is the strength of peer group pressure that a voluntary code of conduct on alcohol was in place long before the Lions left their English base in Weybridge just over a fortnight ago. They drink after a Saturday match, although scarcely to excess and, even then, the players push the selectors for an indication of the team for the following midweek fixture. If they are likely to be involved, they steer clear of the pop.

Cotton, a major tourist in every sense during his long career as a front row heavy, is human enough to admit that, under this stern, ascetic and utterly professional approach to beating the Springboks, some of the traditional joys of touring have been lost, perhaps for ever. Back in 1974, the Lions undertook a long trip to the Kruger National Park, slept native in insect- infested rondavels and drank such spectacular amounts that fresh supplies had to be driven in from the nearest town. There will be few such distractions this time; last Friday, a day trip to Robben Island was cancelled because of pressure of time.

"The nature of touring has changed drastically in recent years and will change further as the impact of professionalism grows," said the manager. "Apart from anything else, the very nature of the itinerary is loaded against the long trips of exploration that were common when I played. We've now got an 11-day stay in Pretoria and I'm sure we'll get out and about a bit more - a trip to Sun City, perhaps, or some water sports - but the intensity of the competitive programme makes it difficult.

"Yes, I think we've lost something, but on a crash-bang-wallop tour like this - 13 matches compared to 22 in 1974 and 26 in New Zealand three years later - time is at a premium. The players have an entertainments committee - John Bentley, a big, energetic character, is doing a great job as a chairman - and as a matter of policy, they all go out to eat together one night a week. But the overriding motivation throughout the party is the Test series. We're here to win it."

Self-denial, then, is the order of the day and, just to complete the picture, the Springboks will work along very similar lines, even though they are on home soil.

When Carel de Plessis, their coach, names his 27-man squad this evening, they will disappear into purdah and, apart from a warm-up Test with Tonga, not lift the veil again until they come face to face with the Lions in Cape Town on 21 June.

In short, rugby players - even those on tour - have finally reached the point where winning is not just everything, but the only thing. Bill Musselman, the great American basketball coach, once said: "Defeat is worse than death, because you have to live with defeat." After years of living with nothing worse than a hangover, the Lions have taken that message on board.