Feature: McGeechan’s reflections on 1997 and his ultimate rugby achievement

"There is something about the Lions and South Africa that I find intoxicating. I always have done. Maybe because I toured as a player and went to every part of the country. It is a brilliant country – a unique environment in which to play rugby." [more]

Feature: McGeechan’s reflections on 1997 and his ultimate rugby achievement

Those are the words of Sir Ian McGeechan, whose name – maybe Willie John McBride apart – is more synonymous with the British & Irish Lions and its illustrious history than any other individual.

Twice he was a player and four times a coach for a team, the ethos of which is unmatched in world sport.

For those who are picked – the very best of the four Home unions – it remains the supreme challenge. For those rare few who succeed, the rewards which flow bestow a particular honour and privilege.

South Africa in 1997 remains the Scot’s ultimate achievement in the sport. With a return there next year on the near horizon, it is worth recalling the words McGeechan spoke before the second Test in Durban with the tourists 1-0 up and with sporting immortality at stake.

Alongside Jim Telfer’s mesmerising ‘Everest speech’ they capture the essence of how best to galvanise a team.

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The quiet hypnotism of their words are indelibly etched in the lexicon of the Lions.

“You will meet each other in the street in 30 years’ time,” he said. “And there will just be a look. And you will know just how special these days in your life are.”

Well it might not be quite 30 years since those heady days but those who embarked on the first Tour of the professional era, and the first of the post-apartheid Republic, could not have been unaware of its significance and also the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it provided.

They indeed did partake in something extraordinary – played out to the soundtrack of Oasis and Wonderwall, the Tour song that they adopted.

Looking back, it was a seemingly magical process of transformation – a creation and combination of elements when seemingly base metal was turned into gold. And no doubt to this day, there remains that unspoken bond.

Many of the original 35 players, plus five who arrived as replacements, went on to have glittering careers.

Six of the 18 Englishmen in the party, Martin Johnson the captain, the back-row triumvirate of Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back, scrum-half Matt Dawson and centre Will Greenwood, were the core of the World Cup-winning side six years later in Sydney.

To be part of the Tour whether as a player, sponsor, tourist or journalist – as I was fortunate enough to be – was to be swept along on a wave of emotion and to become conscious of the epic unfolding.

South Africa were the reigning world champions and full of pomp, having adjusted to the bright light of sporting and political freedoms under the benign leadership of the extraordinary Nelson Mandela.

The European game was coming to terms with what professionalism entailed on the back of a less than spectacular Five Nations, as it then was. There surely could only have been one winner…

It was against that backdrop that in the summer of 1996, Fran Cotton the Tour manager called McGeechan, asking him if he would be prepared to become head coach.

Having been part of the remarkable Lions side which won in South Africa in 1974 and both men being based in the north of England, there was a unity of purpose and vision.

McGeechan agreed but on two conditions – he would have Jim Telfer, his long-time ally in Scotland, as his second in command and that they would pick the squad.

From the outset, McGeechan set about doing things differently. No detail, however apparently mundane, was to be overlooked.

His first stop was to South Africa that summer to spend a fortnight with the All Blacks and their coach John Hart, to pick their brains on New Zealand’s ultimately successful mission to win their first ever series there.

He delved deep and, on his return, had formulated a strategy which he articulated in a report he drafted for Cotton. Its focus was on the type of player he felt would be required to implement the playing strategy that was evolving in his mind – based on a three-layered attack and defence, with individual units three or four strong.

Basically, the number on a player’s back did not entirely matter. He wanted players with the confidence to play but also an open mind about doing something different and having the ability to embrace that.

That trawl led, in the first instance, to the identification of a coterie of cross-code players such as Scott Gibbs, Scott Quinnell, Allan Bateman, Alan Tait and John Bentley.

The latter’s 60-metre solo try against the Gauteng Lions is part of folklore. Apart from sprinkling stardust on the field, Bentley was comedy gold off it, with his own contributions to the behind-the-scenes ‘Living with Lions’ documentary which to this day remains the benchmark for the genre.

“With the game going professional, we talked a lot about what professionalism meant in training, playing approach and away from the pitch: attitudes and approach,” said McGeechan.

“Those who had gone to rugby league had been in that environment and we felt would be very influential in the right way.”

Four coaches, one for each Home nation, took that template and assessed players in their respective country. Players earmarked would be watched and videos made.

McGeechan wanted to understand what made each player tick, how they reacted in different circumstances and weathers, what they were like off the pitch as well as on it.

With his squad finalised by the following March, McGeechan broke further with tradition and organised a team-building away week. He wanted to instil the principles and philosophies he had established for the group.

All the activities had to be practical, no player could achieve anything on his own. Each had to be part of a small team.

“It was the first time I had in my head the idea that you could have teams within teams, that you could change roles,” he explained.

It was a decision and a masterstroke which was to bear ample fruit several weeks later.

The team-building involved activities such as a water fight and climbing beer crates in a tree. At that, Tom Smith and his quiet determination was to prove most adept – which set McGeechan and Telfer’s minds thinking. One by one the building blocks were being put into the Lions edifice.

The week ended with the writing of the ‘Lions Laws’; the rules and standards that would govern the Tour as set by the players.

The onus was on players taking responsibility for themselves and each other. The mantra was ‘Right person, right place, right time’.

Players were put into groups and asked how they wanted to be managed in key areas, the biggest in McGeechan’s opinion being how they wanted the first Test team to be revealed – letters under the door – and how each member should react to the news, including shaking hands with those who had made it. Their feedback produced those ‘laws.’

These were all incorporated onto a small yellow card and kept in a player’s top pocket. If a player looked like he might be straying in some area, he could be shown the yellow card, just to remind them. The exercise ended with a night in a Surrey pub with Martin Johnson at the helm.

Appointing the untried Johnson as captain was another prescient decision. McGeechan was coaching at Northampton at the time, the East Midlands rivalry with Leicester intense.

“When we played them, although Johnno wasn’t captain he was just a presence on the field,” said McGeechan. “The impact he had not only on his own team but also my team Northampton – and I had players like Matt Dawson and Tim Rodber – was apparent.

“I said to Jim [Telfer], ‘I know he’s never captained anybody but this is someone that the South Africans will have to look up to. He has the respect of everybody. When they toss the coins in the first Test, the South African skipper is going to have to look up to the Lions skipper. It’s the psychology of saying that we are here for real, that this man is here for real.’ He just gave you that feeling.”

One of the things that All Blacks coach Hart had advised for the 13-match Tour was to control everything you can.

“He told me that kit and scrummaging machines could go missing or not turn up at the right time, so don’t leave it to anyone else,” continued McGeechan.

“So we had two fully-laden trucks on the road.  When we were in one place, the other lorry was going to the next venue. Wherever we trained it was with our own kit and already set up when we arrived for training. We were totally self-contained, which the South Africans obviously did not like.”

Analysis was another factor. Andy Keast was put in charge and he would edit videos of training sessions which were shown to the players.

The Lions hit the ground running in South Africa where local papers had dismissed their chances. ‘They might win friends as they’re good guys but they won’t win matches,’ was one headline which sticks in the mind.

The first four matches were won, the highlight being the 38-21 defeat of Western Province. There were encouraging signs that the players were rapidly attuning to McGeechan’s gameplan. But the music stopped abruptly in Pretoria against Northern Transvaal, who won 35-30.

“Perhaps we just thought it was going to happen,” McGeechan said on reflection. “In the first half we were loose. When we got it right in the second half, the rugby was spectacular.

“It was almost a redefining of how vital it would be to have everything right if we were to have any chance of beating South Africa.

“Then in the next game in Johannesburg (against the Gauteng Lions) we got the attitude right. At the end, the non-playing group rushed out of the stand to applaud the team back into the dressing room because everybody understood what a big performance that was.

“Then we played Natal the super champions, everyone expected them to beat us and that was when our rugby broke through [in a 42-12 win]. That was unbelievable. Our rugby, our understanding of what we had to do, our training was very intense but with a clarity.”

The head coach had also introduced a defence day into training.

“We’d never had that in rugby union,” he added. “I’d got that from speaking to a rugby league coach about drills and organisation.

“He put a programme together for a Tuesday when everything was defence. Without the ball we became very good.”

Confronting the perceived dominance of the Springboks’ scrummage was another priority for McGeechan.

“We had to take away a strength they think they have got,” he stated. “Jim [Telfer] said they only way we are going to do it is go as low as possible and stop their big men getting the right position. That was the making of [props] Paul Wallace and Tom Smith.

“A powerful element was a video put together by a lecturer from Cardiff University who from afar had been analysing and studying playing statistics from the Tour.

“He compiled a 12-minute video set to music, the first half of which highlighted every player contributing without the ball. The seconds six minutes was about our attack.

“The night before the first Test I showed it to the players. The silence was deafening. That night it must have been replayed 30 times. Every time I went past the team room, it was on.”

At the first scrum of the first Test in Cape Town, the Lions got their timing wrong and went backwards, which only served to show how vital it was to be pinpoint accurate in everything they did.

But the Lions’ scrummaging got better and better, lower and tighter as the game went on.

Matt Dawson’s incredible dummy and score and Alan Tait’s decisive late try came from set-pieces and breakdowns which were superbly executed. Neil Jenkins’ place-kicking was the gloss on a startling 25-16 victory.

The second Test saw South Africa at full bore with the Lions straining every sinew to stay in touch. The Boks scored three tries but Andre Joubert, Percy Montgomery and Henry Honiball between them missed six kicks at goal.

Jenkins produced what McGeechan still describes as the most outstanding display of goal-kicking under pressure he has ever seen with five successful penalties.

At 15-15, everything that had been worked on, everything McGeechan had been preaching came to fruition in one glorious and history-making passage of play with players popping up in different positions but comfortable in doing so.

The build-up to the iconic Jeremy Guscott drop goal personified that. McGeechan can see it as clearly in his mind now as he did from the stand in Durban in June 1997.

He explains: “Guscott made a tackle, commits to a ruck and we turned it over. [Keith] Wood emerges and kicks it down the touchline.

“That forces a Lions lineout, the forwards drove, Gregor [Townsend] took a brilliant line back at them which is why he wasn’t there when the ball came out but what he had done was put them on the back foot.

“All these elements were players doing the things we had hoped 12 months earlier they would have the confidence and the ability and the attitude to do.

“The ball comes back to Jerry and..” McGeechan’s voice trails away.

Nothing more needs to be said. There were four minutes left, the longest of his life, but hang on the Lions did.

The third Test was a step too far as the Springboks gained a measure of revenge with a 35-16 victory in Johannesburg but it did not matter.

I asked McGeechan where the Tour stood in his career. Without a moment’s hesitation he replies: “Top. You look back at it and think, ‘Crikey I was privileged to be part of that group’.”

One moment after the first Test encapsulated why. Irish lock Jeremy Davidson had celebrated long into the night and not returned to his hotel room.

He was terrified that if he had to get back to pack, he would miss the bus. He need not have worried – Graham Rowntree, the English prop and his Tour room-mate, had packed for him.

McGeechan picks up the story: “Jeremy said, ‘I can’t thank you enough.’ To which Rowntree replied: ‘You thanked me yesterday, you won a Test match.’ When you’ve got something like that then you are talking about special people.”

And as for the coach’s final thoughts about the Tour?

“When you are coaching, you always have the perfect game in your mind,” he said. “There were elements of rugby on that Tour that got as close to the perfect game that I had in my head.

“Some of it was spectacular. To be prepared to be different. We caught South Africa out by playing a game they didn’t think British and Irish players were capable of.”

This article is part of the British & Irish Lions Freelance Writers Project. 

Mark Souster was rugby correspondent for The Times where he spent 20 years covering the sport, including five Lions Tours and seven Rugby World Cups. He was named Sports Journalist of the Year for his reporting on England’s RWC 2011 campaign and also presented Rugby Special for BBC Scotland.

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