After the British & Irish Lions’ 2-1 series defeat by New Zealand in 1993, Ian McGeechan submitted his post-tour coaching report to the board. It was to be the last tour before the introduction of professionalism in 1996.
As printed in ‘The Official History of the British & Irish Lions’, he wrote down 18 comments and recommendations which he hoped would be drawn upon as cautionary tales for future tours. But as McGeechan and his predecessors have found out, these recommendations have rarely led to change.
Here we look at whether some of McGeechan’s most telling words of advice were heeded 24 years on ahead of this summer’s tour.
Ian McGeechan watches on as the Lions play New Zealand in 1993 Dave Rogers/ALLSPORT
The 13-match tour is a very difficult proposition, particularly in New Zealand or South Africa, and it requires a balanced itinerary and the facility to prepare correctly before departure. As far as the itinerary was concerned, only the Waikato game was completely wrong.
This summer’s tour is regarded as one of the hardest to date. Sir Graham Henry, who won the World Cup in 2011 and coached the Lions in 2001, described the schedule as “suicidal” to ESPN. The Lions play each of New Zealand’s five Super Rugby franchises; have two Tests at Eden Park — a ground at which the All Blacks have not lost in 37 matches — a further one in Wellington alongside games against the NZ Maori and an opener against the NZ Barbarians. And all packed into six weeks, despite Warren Gatland recommending a series of changes to the schedule after their victorious 2013 tour.
The manager, but more particularly, the coach, must have significant, even final, decision on the composition of the tour party, as it is the rugby and the results which are ultimately the most important part of the tour. It would be beneficial for the manager and the coach to have no national involvement during the season prior to the tour.
Gatland and his three assistant coaches Steve Borthwick, Andy Farrell and Rob Howley have been bouncing ideas off one another since they were formerly announced as the Lions’ backroom staff for this 2017 tour. Ultimately it is Gatland’s call on the team and the squad but the tour manager — John Spencer — and the coaches will have some input. Gatland also took a sabbatical from Wales for the 2016-17 campaign.
I felt it was important that we had an additional weekend together, but this was very difficult to organize because of club commitments. If we are to prepare properly and have the players in the correct mental and physical state for such an intense tour, then consideration has to be given to presenting the Lions preparation program at least 18 months before the tour and asking each of the Home Unions to organize, for that season only, a change to some domestic fixtures. It seems ridiculous to me that we were finally at the mercy of the clubs as to how we could organize our preparation.
Realistically, the players should also have at least two or three weeks’ break before having to attempt a tour of this intensity.
The Lions tour was fitted around the clubs’ schedule, rather than the other way around. The first match of the tour on June 3 is just a week after the Aviva Premiership and Guinness PRO12 finals. The same went for their 2013 tour to Australia, except that their opener against the Barbarians was in the heat of Hong Kong. Nothing has changed in 24 years.
Warren Gatland – who coaches the Lions this summer – was one of Ian McGeechan’s assistants in 2009 (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
One further recommendation I could make is that, on some occasions, it would have been better not to travel at all on the Sunday, particularly after a big game in the major centers. This would allow a complete day off for organisation of free time and, on the Monday, training could then take place, followed by travel.
The Lions will likely travel on Sundays as they have Tuesday matches.
The major weakness in our squad was the absence of a strong character who could captain the midweek side and give it purpose and focus. I would recommend future selection actually selects a player with this responsibility.
The Lions squad will likely have at least two of the four home union captains with Rory Best, Dylan Hartley, Greig Laidlaw and Alun Wyn Jones in the mix to be in the touring party. Away from that group, there are likely to be a number of other leaders who can take charge of midweek sides but there is unlikely to be one designated leader.
In the pre-professionalism days, the midweek games were usually easier than the weekend matches but this is now a trend consigned to the past. In 2013 Best, Brian O’Driscoll and Dan Lydiate all led the midweek team.
The role of the assistant coach could be extended, possibly to take official responsibility for the midweek team, and this would help to give a focus to the duties of the assistant coach.
As fate had it, McGeechan unofficially took charge of the Lions’ 2005 midweek team on that tour of New Zealand and they went unbeaten under his tutelage. Gatland did not appoint a midweek coach in 2013 and is unlikely to do so this time around.
Warren Gatland in action for Waikato against the Lions in 1993 (Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images)
It would have been very useful to have the squad’s photograph with signatures on a card (Christmas card format), to distribute during the tour.
A selection of headed notepaper (standard and airmail) would also be very useful for communication purposes.
The Lions will go on a number of community visits while in New Zealand and will have a wealth of memorabilia and keepsakes to hand out on these ventures. They pride themselves on being a team connected with the locals and on leaving a long-lasting good impression, so this will be a key part of their trip to New Zealand. They will take in the region of 20 tonnes of luggage and equipment with them and 150 suit measurements have been taken.
The Lions must continue – the Test matches provide an arena which is completely different from any other experience the players get and the response in New Zealand is completely different from any national tour. We must not underestimate the Lions’ role and their significance in the world stage. Whatever we think nationally, we cannot provide what the Lions provide and, although there will be inherent difficulties of bringing four countries together, the advantages far outweigh any problems, and British rugby will always benefit from the existence of the Lions.
In June Gatland leads the Lions to New Zealand on their 33rd tour. The 2013 crop were under immense pressure to return from Australia with a series win given that their last triumph was in 1997. They were risking being cast as an anachronism yet the sponsors and supporters — 30,000 are expected to travel to New Zealand — continue to flock to this team. It is a side born from amateur rugby’s principles but fully professionalised and is still so important to the modern game.
“It’s a huge honour,” Gatland said when he was unveiled as Lions coach. “It’s the biggest job in world rugby against the best opposition and, when offered the challenge, it’s very hard to say no.
“I have massive pride in taking the Lions to my own country, to lead the team against the back-to-back world champions in their own back yard. There is no bigger honour.”
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