Ian McGeechan believes the task facing his British & Irish Lions in 2009 is even harder than the one he faced in 1997.
A dozen years ago McGeechan took the Lions to the home of the then world champions and emerged with a 2-1 Test series triumph – the last recorded by the Lions. But the Head Coach for 2009 believes the challenge his side will be facing in six months time is going to be even mightier than the last time.
“It will be even harder than 1997 because South Africa want revenge – they have only lost three Test series against anyone in their history so they don’t like it,” McGeechan told The Scotsman newspaper.
But the man who has become synonymous with Lions rugby after two tours as a player and four as a coach, including one Test series victory as a player and two as a coach, believes the opportunity is there for players to achieve ‘legendary’ status in the famous red jersey this summer.
“In my opinion, you cannot be a legendary rugby player if you haven’t been a Lion. You can be a very good international player and have done some good things, but when you’re talking about legendary rugby players they have made their mark as Lions,” he said.
“Players appreciate and respect that. They are desperate to be part of it, which is a great motivation because they’re there for the right reasons.
“All the in-built tradition and history, the interest globally, is all part of why they want to pull on a Lions jersey.
“Even with the game turning professional the Lions hasn’t lost its attraction. You can go back to the 1950s, the 1930s, or whatever, and the concept is exactly the same.
“You don’t go away for four or five months now – that’s different – but it’s the same principle of the four countries coming together in a great adventure. Even new professionals relate to the history of the Lions, the unique nature of what is really the only remaining high-level tour of this kind for players.
“I think that’s fantastic and it is also very important because, first and foremost, you need players to want to come on a Lions because they want to be a Lion, not because they want to get some extra money.
“I was lucky because I think the Lions made me. Playing with guys like JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett and Andy Irvine gave me an inner strength. It might have been there already, but it came out in Lions Tests.
“Suddenly, you are on a different level. It took me to a different level and that’s why I still get enjoyment.
“I know that in the Lions environment some players will grow beyond even their own expectations. That’s the reason I still enjoy it so much.
“If you build the right environment and give them the opportunity to win, it takes them to a new level in their sporting lives. It means so much to the players.”