With the Lions tour to Australia now less than a year away, preparations for the trip Down Under are gathering pace.
Visits to the host nation have already taken place, logistical conundrums are currently being worked through and all the stepping stones to series success are continuing to be laid.
As the four-year countdown to what should be an enthralling 10-match adventure enters the home straight, tour manager Andy Irvine, director of operations Guy Richardson and chief executive John Feehan have made massive progress when it comes to behind the scenes necessities like hotels and training venues, flights and fixture itineraries, training equipment and sponsorship deals.
So much goes into making a Lions tour one of the sporting world’s most memorable events yet today’s build up is a far cry from the old amateur days when preparations were far from perfect and could definitely be described as a little less refined.
Previously, preparations on foreign soil were left largely in the hands of the home country, with the Lions doing what they could to be ready but ultimately finding their fate in the grips of others when it came to the details of the tour itself.
When the game went professional in the lead up to the 1997 Lions tour, legendary coach Sir Ian McGeechan admits things changed dramatically – a factor he believes played a considerable role in providing the platform for Britain and Ireland’s elite to topple the then World Champion Springboks.
McGeechan, who had previously coached the Lions in Australia in 1989 and New Zealand in 1993, began his planning earlier than ever before ahead of the first trip to South Africa in 17 years as the Lions embraced the concept of professionalism that many believed would lead to their demise.
“For the first time, it allowed me to go to South Africa the summer before to watch them play the All Blacks and to get a feeling for their team and the way they were playing,” McGeechan, who felt better prepared both on and off the field by the time the Lions took on the Boks, told Sky Sports.
“I’d spent time with the All Blacks. They’d let me into their camp, they’d talked to me and that was the reason why we took extra players: we took an extra scrum-half, an extra hooker and so on, just to take the pressure off. That was their recommendation.
Sir Ian McGeechan says preparation improved massively for the '97 tour
“The other thing they said was ‘take all your own equipment, be in control of everything you do and don’t rely on anybody else’. So we took all our own equipment and, wherever we trained, the pitch was set out the way we wanted.
“It didn’t matter whether it was Pretoria, Port Elizabeth or Cape Town, when the boys went out to train, the field was set by us. We weren’t relying on anybody outside us.
“It also allowed me to understand the type of players we were going to have to look for and the sort of rugby we were going to have to play if we were going to beat them in a Test series.
“We then built up videos of all the players over the next three or four months to look at what we felt were going to be the best and most effective combinations for taking the Springboks on. We knew they saw us as underdogs.”
Another aspect of that 1997 tour that McGeechan believes played it’s part in securing an historic triumph was his choice of captain – something that could be equally important when the Lions take on the Wallabies next summer.
McGeechan handed the armband to England lock Martin Johnson, a man who may now be one of the most famous names in English rugby having led his country to World Cup glory in 2003 but wasn’t even skipper of his own national side at the time.
Bath centre Phil de Glanville was the man at England’s helm when the Lions left for South Africa and Lawrence Dallaglio was given the job by new boss Sir Clive Woodward the autumn after they returned, yet McGeechan plumped for Johnson.
It was a surprise call given that veteran Lions tourists Ieuan Evans and England prop Jason Leonard were among the party but it proved to be an inspired choice.
Johnson skippered the Lions quite brilliantly, leading from the front and letting his actions speaker louder than words.
The Leicester lock was a physically imposing figure when he knocked on the Springbok dressing room door before kick off but he was also a highly-intelligent captain who was capable of carrying out coaching instructions on the field of play.
His calmness under pressure and his never-say-die attitude inspired the Lions to Test victories in Cape Town and Durban and the rest, as they say, is history.
Martin Johnson led the Lions by example in 1997 and later in 2001
“Martin was fairly quiet. He doesn’t say a lot. He’s very knowledgeable and is a bit of an anorak. He bought into what we were trying to do and he knew exactly what the key elements were for it to work, plus he’d get involved and he’d do it,” added McGeechan.
“I was coach of Northampton at the time and came across players in the Premiership, which was a big help to me. It was the impact he had, not just on the Leicester players but on the Northampton players, and we had some strong characters like Tim Rodber, Paul Grayson and Matt Dawson.
“You could see the impact he had on the field. Dean Richards, who I’d had on a couple of previous occasions on tour with the Lions, was then with Leicester and I just said to him, ‘I really feel if there was someone who could make an impact for all the right reasons with other players and earning their respect, it would be him. What do you think?’ He said, ‘I’d agree. He’s got the capability of doing it’.
“One of the big things for me was that, in the first Test when we had Jeremy Davidson in the second row and we were getting him up in the air at great speed, I don’t think Johnno ever called a lineout to himself because he knew the effect Jeremy was having behind him.
“That sort of ability to read a game, and to keep himself out of it in a way, showed just how big an impact he could have on what was happening.”