100… and counting

As the countdown clock before the 2009 British & Irish Lions ticked through the 100 days barrier (Thursday, 19 February), tour manager Gerald Davies and members of the Lions coaching team gave their views on the challenges ahead. [more]

100… and counting

As the countdown clock before the 2009 British & Irish Lions ticked through the 100 days barrier (Thursday, 19 February), tour manager Gerald Davies and members of the Lions coaching team gave their views on the challenges ahead.

Davies talked of “the new peak” his players will have to reach on this summer’s tour to South Africa.

“There is a sense of longing among the players in the four nations – a longing to represent the Lions. They are very immensely proud to be representing their own individual countries, but by going on a Lions tour you arrive at another peak – another challenge faces you,” said Davies, a Lion in South Africa in 1968 and New Zealand in 1971. 

“Each player knows at the back of their minds that there is another accolade and another honour awaiting them. You may be the best player in your own country, but when the Four Nations come together you have to prove yourself in a squad environment to be better than the others to get into the Test team. 

“We will be playing every game as if we are playing the Springboks. It is a series from first of our 10 matches to the last.

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“This is Lions year – you can’t turn a corner without somebody talking about the tour. The whole population of South Africa are looking forward to the Lions coming. 

“From all the things that have been said, the expectation in South Africa is high. They are aware that in 1974 and 1997 the Lions went there and won the series.

“Now they want to get their own back. My intention is for the players and management to have an enjoyable, combative and memorable period in South Africa this summer. 

“The Lions has this romantic image about it – a caravan, a carnival of players going from one country to the next over a 12 year period. But to me the Lions are a good combative team that loves a challenge and competition – and represents what is best in rugby football.” 

The Lions kick-off their 10 match tour of South Africa against a High Veld XV at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg at 3.00pm local time (2.00pm BST) on Saturday, 30 May.

It means the countdown clock went through 100 days this afternoon (Thursday, 19 February). 

"LeftWarren Gatland may be concentrating his efforts at present on helping Wales stay on course for back-to-back Grand Slams in the RBS 6 Nations Championship, but the 2009 British & Irish Lions forwards coach is fully aware of the enormity of the challenges that are coming up in 100 days time. 

“Everything is pretty full-on at the moment with the RBS 6 Nations, but with only 100 days to go I guess you’d have to say the Lions tour is coming up pretty quickly around the corner,” said Gatland. 

“I haven’t tried to think about it too much, but I know there is going to be a huge amount of expectation having been to South Africa and seen how they are gearing up for the tour. It’s just going to be a massive tour and I’m really excited about it. 

“We had a very worthwhile recce in South Africa and we are getting everything in place that we need to make this a successful tour. We are well organised and the great thing at the moment is that there are a lot of players who are really pushing for selection. 

“There are no cast iron certainties and there are a number of guys who over the next few weeks could force themselves into the Lions party. That’s really encouraging and healthy and for a lot of players there is a hell of a lot to play for over the next three rounds of 6 Nations matches.

“I was very interested to see the first round of results from the Super 14 tournament last weekend and wasn’t it a great game between the Lions and the Cheetahs. There they were, two of the basement sides from last year’s competition, beating the hell out of each other in a very exciting and high quality game.

“That certainly showed the level of competition we can expect to meet when we travel in the summer. As the Super 14 warms-up, we’ll obviously take a much closer look and I’ll be keeping a check on the performances of the South African teams. 

“Every player in the Six Nations wants to make the Lions tour this summer, but every player in South Africa wants the honour of playing against the Lions. That is what is going to make this tour so very, very tough.

“As a Kiwi, I know all about the history of South African rugby and I was delighted to get the chance shortly after the end of the Apartheid system to go there and experience the country for myself.

“Their passion for the game reminded me of New Zealand and they certainly take their sport very, very seriously.” 

""Rob Howley and Graham Rowntree were team mates the last time the British & Irish Lions toured South Africa in 1997. More recently they were opposing coaches as Wales beat England in the RBS 6 Nations championship. But now they are looking forward to joining forces again as members of Ian McGeechan’s coaching team with the 2009 Lions in South Africa this summer.

“It’s scary to think we will soon be on the plane bound for South Africa and touching down in the land of the reigning World Champions. It’s quite daunting, really, being told there are only 100 days to go before the first game,” said Rowntree.

“I’m very excited about the tour but I’m focussing on the England job at the moment but I’m really looking forward to working with the group of coaches ‘Geech’ has assembled – they’ll give me a different perspective on coaching. 

“Working with another elite group of players will also give me a different flavour of things, which is something that gets me very excited. But at the moment, all thoughts are on the day job and trying to help England in the championship.

“A lot of our guys put their hands up for Lions selection against Wales, so I’m delighted with how things are shaping up. That said, there are a lot of strong candidates from the Welsh camp

“I’ve been to South Africa six or seven times and got some great memories. I was with the England team that went on the first tour there in the professional era and I was also part of the England squad that won there in 2000.

“But my fondest memory is touring there with the 1997 Lions. Winning the series against all the odds was a fantastic achievement. No one gave us a chance before we went, but we worked really hard under ‘Geech’ and Jim Telfer.“

Rowntree made 12 appearances for the Lions on the 1997 and 2005 tours, figuring as a replacement in the second and third Tests in New Zealand four years ago. Howley had his 1997 tour cut short by a shoulder injury after four appearances, but returned to pick up two test caps on the 2001 tour to Australia.

Helping the Lions to win the first Test against the Wallabies in 2001 remains one of Howley’s greatest rugby moments.

“The experience of touring with the Lions is something that stays with you forever. I know my trip to South Africa was cut short though injury, but I still have many fond memories of the time I spent there in 1997, said Howley.

“One of the best was being among a group of players who were relaxing after beating Western Province. It was probably two weeks before the first Test and it was at the time the Lions fans were fully coming on board and the tour was gaining momentum.

“I was having a few beers with Jason Leonard and Jerry Guscott when we decided to autograph Jerry’s Lions blazer. The fans loved it, but Jerry wasn’t too happy.

“The bond that was built between the players and the fans on that trip was fantastic and it is something we will be looking to replicate this summer. The atmosphere and camaraderie amongst the players and the fans is what makes Lions tours so very, very special.

“The Lions tour has always been in the back of the minds of the coaches and players, but our main focus has been on the RBS 6 Nations. Even so, it is hard to believe we are getting so close to stepping onto the field in Rustenburg to play our first game – 100 days and counting.

“The dynamics of the coaching team are going to be pretty special and I’m really looking forward to working with the coaches almost as much as the players.

“Having toured South Africa with the Lions in 1997 I know just how important the short time we spend together is going to be prior to departure. That week at when we first get together will be vital in our preparation. In 1997, the week before departure set the tone for the tour.

“There is still a long way to go before selection, but the game between Wales and England was pretty special and Ireland showed their strength in beating France in the first round of the RBS 6 Nations.

“There are players staking claims and I know that ‘Geech’ is very pleased with the standard he’s seen so far in the championship.”

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