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'Sometimes when it rains it pours. And by God did it pour in New Zealand'
Staplewood, Southampton FC’s training ground since the mid-1980s, does not feature in any of the books dedicated to the feats of the British and Irish Lions. Yet it was here, in the unlikely environs of the Hampshire village of Marchwood, that a remarkable journey of redemption began that many believe saved the side from extinction.
It was early autumn in 2005 and memories of the Lions’ humiliating 3-0 series defeat by New Zealand that summer were still raw.
On the field, the team had been outclassed; off it, the Lions had been criticised for not embracing the host nation in their traditional touring manner, of being too self-important, self-obsessed, paranoid and arrogant, all encapsulated in the abrasive presence of the former Labour spin-doctor Alastair Campbell as head of media, an appointment which had caused friction within and without the squad.
Sir Clive Woodward, the Lions head coach, had attempted to equip the squad with the tools necessary to compete as their opponents continued to make major strides forward in the professional era. Some of the major changes demanded by England’s World Cup-winning coach - logistics, medical provision, strength and conditioning and analysis - are still in place today and the tour was a commercial success, returning a rare profit to the home unions.
As John Feehan, the Lions chief executive at the time, points out, "future tours would not have been successful without the input that Clive had put into that 2005 tour”.
And yet there was no question the tour had been a catastrophe, with perhaps the most disastrous decision centring on splitting the squad into Test and midweek parties.
“I don't think Clive Woodward intended to be as split as it became in 2005 but it just didn’t work," recalls Ronan O'Gara, on the second of his three Lions tours. "When you have two 23s, it seems very concocted, with the midweek team away from the Test team. That existed from day one and right to the end.
“I was rooming opposite Paulie [Paul O’Connell, part of the midweek squad]. Now the mood coming out of his room and my room was… it was such tough, tough work. I’m such a fan of Lions tours and as a young Irishman, that’s all I wanted to do. But sometimes when it rains it pours. And by God did it pour in New Zealand."
The tour had shattered the Lions ethos and even left some players wondering if they wanted to go on another tour when preparations began for South Africa in 2009.
Feehan’s response to the crisis was to undertake a root-and-branch investigation into what went wrong to ensure the mistakes made were not repeated, and he planned to make Woodward his first port of call.
Woodward was already immersed in a new challenge - a surprise move to become technical director with Southampton FC - but was happy to take part. As Feehan set off on the journey from Dublin to England's south coast, he knew the next few weeks would be critical to securing the future of the Lions.
‘Back to basics’
“Clive is a good guy to deal with," recalls Feehan, who was chief executive of the Lions from 2002 until 2018 and now runs a consultancy business, Sport2Sport. “I had a whole set of pre-prepared questions and we had a good chat. I had a fair idea of what he was going to say. Clive is a very proud man and he didn't really want to concede what the overall issue was. But I think he knew in his heart what had gone wrong.”
Others were more direct. Feehan’s report included speaking to the other coaches, including Sir Ian McGeechan, captain Brian O’Driscoll, tour manager Bill Beaumont, senior players from each of the four home unions and the medical and strength and conditioning teams.
“The other coaches certainly were quite, quite clear about it,” adds Feehan. "It all led to a long report which is still there and was used. We took a lot of learnings from that report – what the good things were, obviously and the things that didn't work well.
“And the thing that came out of that report more than anything else, was this dichotomy of squads. That breaking them in two and running two tours within a tour was not a good idea. And that cohesiveness and togetherness is such an important part of the overall potential success of a tour.”
Other issues that surfaced were the result of clashes of personalities. The two sides each had their own defensive systems. “It was just ludicrous for a tour,” Feehan adds.
The issue of the Lions failure to embrace their hosts in a traditional manner was also addressed. “There was an abrasive type of ethos on that tour of giving no ground to anybody. At one level, that can work, and it might work for some teams, but it didn’t work for Lions tours.”
Feehan and the Lions board mulled over the findings of the report for several months before beginning the recruitment search for a new head coach.
Due process was followed, but it quickly emerged that there was only one outstanding candidate who had the abundance of experience and understanding of the Lions ethos required to reset the greatest brand in world rugby on the tour of South Africa in 2009.
It was time to go back to basics - and the man to do that was Sir Ian McGeechan.
'Old spirit in a new format'
The first key appointment was the tour manager. Rotation meant that Wales would provide the appointment and in Gerald Davies they could provide a ready-made legend. Capped 46 times for Wales, Davies played in five Lions Tests on two tours, 1971 and 1977, having refused to tour South Africa in 1974 because of the apartheid regime.
As a board member, Davies was aware of the issues that needed to be resolved and found a willing soul mate in McGeechan when the Scot was reappointed as head coach in May 2008.
Tradition was that the Lions looked first to the head coaches of each of the four Home Unions to be Lions head coach but McGeechan, who was director of rugby at Wasps, had been the man identified by the board to rebuild the Lions reputation.
With a unique insight into the Lions concept, having been involved in a record six tours as a player (1974 and 1977), assistant coach (2005) and head coach (1987, 1993 and 1997), ‘Geech’ and Davies made for the perfect combination to formulate a new blueprint for the tour.
“Geech had been so successful with the Lions and once he made himself available, the feeling was ‘Let’s have Ian again. You can’t get a better coach and the experience that he had. The general sense was: this is the man to do it, and we did it. We went with him and it worked.”
Feehan insists it was not a “knee-jerk reaction” to 2005 go back to McGeechan but a considered and thoughtful process.
“We asked the questions: ‘what does the coach need to bring to the party? How is he going to change this? Do they have the experience and know-how to build the kind of atmosphere we need to build?’
“Geech had it all and completely understood what we wanted to do. He was instrumental in developing what I would call the old spirit in a new format.”
'Take one imaginative leap now to be a Lion'
With a new management team in place, the work began in earnest.
The Lions, 12 years on from their last Test series victory, would once again face a Springbok side that were the reigning world champions. And John Smit’s class of 2009 were widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time.
McGeechan would bring Warren Gatland on board as part of a tight coaching group including Shaun Edwards, Graham Rowntree, Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins. It was a coaching template that would dominate the next two tours.
The Lions were able to select some world-class players themselves, but first the ethos and culture of the squad had to be addressed.
“One of the things I had heard about the 2005 tour is that some of the players didn’t fancy going on another Lions tour,” recalls Davies. “When I heard that I thought ‘crikey, imagine not wanting to go on a Lions tour, something must be wrong’. So I started with that in mind.”
Some of the changes were subtle. “In the past people had said to the players, forget your national identities, you are Lions now,” says Davies. “But I said I didn’t want to go down that road. We are Irish, Welsh, English and Scots and let’s be proud of that. That’s our identity. But let each of us from one country respect the traditions and history of the others.
“And then I used the phrase: ‘take one imaginative leap now to be a Lion. You are not forgetting your identity. You're not forgetting where you belong. You're just adding something else to your characters and personality’.”
Others were more direct. It was decided that the players would room with each other again to improve bonding and help eradicate any sense of a split between the Test team and the midweek side.
“Whether it was the amateur or professional era, I felt it was important to treat the players as people, not automatons,” Davies added.
There would be greater input from the new tour captain Paul O’Connell to management decisions than his predecessor Brian O’Driscoll in 2005.
“Brian was a figurehead within the team,” recalls Feehan. “That is not his fault, it was the way Clive wanted it. I think Ian saw Paul as very much part of the management team. The players were consulted and brought into the process of how they behaved themselves.
“Also, if they were tired after a particular session and needed downtime, they were allowed to do that through consultation. The schedule wasn’t rigid but flexible and that helped.”
That included scrapping curfews for the players while the loosening of restrictions also saw the re-introduction of the Sunday ‘court’ sessions, where players were fined for misdemeanours during the previous week.
“I didn't believe in curfews,” adds Davies. “They don’t work. If you have a curfew for five weeks, the natural instinct of a player would be: ‘how do I get around this? I fancy a pint.’
“They will attempt to circumvent the manager. ‘That's his rule. How do we get around it?’ And suddenly trust is lost.
“I didn’t want that. The players are adults. They know when they want to have a break. They know if they are playing on Saturday they are not going to have a drink on a Thursday night. But if they're not playing the following Wednesday, well, why not?”
Davies also set about improving relations with the media, starting with a lunch at Shepherd’s restaurant in Westminster. “It seemed to me that there was a lot of tension in 2005 between the Lions and the media,” he recalls. “So I asked the rugby writers to nominate seven or eight people from the media and broadcasters and we went for lunch.
“I need to find out what their feelings were because in the end many of the media have more experience of the Lions than anyone else. Quite a few journalists had travelled three or four times with the Lions and knew the ins and outs of touring better than most.
“The phrase that came back, and it struck a chord with what I was thinking, was that the Lions was the last great rugby adventure. We needed to create that Lions spirit of adventure. We needed to bring it into the professional era but the players also needed to enjoy it.
“You can’t live on a tight wire for six weeks with the stress and tension of playing and competing at the end of a long and tough season. You also have to have time off to relax, to laugh and have fun. That doesn’t take anything away from competitiveness that is required, in fact, it makes it better.”
There was an emphasis too in squad selection on the character as well as the ability of players, and those selected were told they would all be given a reasonable chance to press their claims for a Test place to reinstate the one-for-all touring spirit.
“The key ingredient for any Lions tour, probably going back to 1993, the midweek team drives the Test team. Geech and Gats got it and that was why the selection policy of giving every player a start in the first three games was so important.
“The players are going to be engaged and motivated because they know they are going to get that chance in the first two weeks of the tour.”
'Getting the players out of bed for a beer'
By 2009, O’Gara was one of the most senior players to be selected for the tour of South Africa. Earlier in the season he had guided Ireland to their first Grand Slam in 61 years. He noticed the difference in the approach from 2005 immediately.
“I can remember getting on one of the buses from the airport to Pennyhill Park and there was instant buzz and a good feeling when the Irish and Welsh players got on the bus,” he recalls. “You could tell straight away that this was going to be good fun.
“People forget about that even though it is a serious sport but one of the crucial elements in any environment is fun. There were some brilliant characters on board as well.
“When we got to Pennyhill, in training it was very, very united with a kind of one-group focus. That’s what good managers do, they learn from the previous campaign and how to do it better. And they did it better.”
The influence of the new regime was not lost on Phil Vickery, the England prop who like O’Gara had toured with the Lions in 2001 but had missed the 2005 tour with an arm injury.
“In 2005 and what Clive tried to do was pretty much what he did with the England team and for whatever reason with the Lions, it didn't work,” says Vickery. “So 2009 it was about resetting and reconnecting with what the Lions stand for.”
Part of that reconnection involved allowing the players to travel in their own coach, with the coaches and management in a separate one.
“It is important for players to have that downtime and it meant that on the way to and from training was not so serious and they can have their jokes, fun and some singing,” says Howley, on what was his first tour as a coach.
“It gave the players time to breathe and time to have a bit of fun and a bit of banter which certainly helped towards the culture and the camaraderie on the tour.”
And like the 1997 Lions, who struck their bonds on a pre-tour lock-in at a pub in Weybridge, the 2009 squad had a similar experience before heading to South Africa on a night which underscored the influence of O’Connell and the desire of the management to introduce greater flexibility to the schedule.
After the farewell dinner at the Natural History Museum in London, the players returned to Pennyhill Park late and some players had gone straight to bed. The following day was a day off and the squad was scheduled to be an activity day on boats in Portsmouth.
O’Connell had picked up the vibe from his squad that they were not keen and approached Davies.
“When we returned to the hotel, Paul O'Connell came to me and said: ‘Gerald, the players don’t want to go down to Portsmouth. It will take two hours on the bus and the feeling was that the players didn’t want to go on the water.
“So I said that’s fine, we will get them out of their rooms, bring them down to the bar and let’s have a few beers.”
Vickery was already in the bar when the call went out. “It had been a long day. We had trained hard and had done altitude training, which was f------ brutal, and then we had to go to the dinner at the National History Museum.
“Everyone had gone to bed and then the word came from Gats to phone everyone and get them down to the bar. I was already down there but the other boys got out of bed and came down.
“It wasn't about getting drunk or doing stupid things. It was just like getting everyone together with a beer. The ‘forced fun’ stuff the next day was cancelled so that we could have a day to chill out instead. It set the tone.”
It left a lasting impact. “When the tour was over,” recalls Davies. “Paul O’Connell came up to me and said ‘Gerald, remember that night in Pennyhill Park when we had a few drinks? I knew then that this was going to be a different tour.”
'Saving the Lions'
In replicating the tour spirit that had been engendered on the 1997 tour, the Lions travelled to South Africa already as a band of brothers and the bond would deepen between them in the white heat moments of the Test series against the world champions.
Away from the rugby, the first weeks were marked by the Lions' determination to embrace the local communities, visiting schools and townships.
“I told the players ‘be aware that you're now going to be guests in another country and we have to behave accordingly’,” says Davies.
“And we wanted for people in that country to appreciate what we're doing. We will do what needs to be done in the community. We want the Lions to do some good while they were in South Africa. And I would like to think that it worked.
Howley recalls doing a passing and kicking session with O’Driscoll in a township and the joy that it brought to the children.
“Brian just embraced it and loved it,” recalls Howley. “You are ambassadors for the British and Irish Lions and it is so important to do that. You are there to embrace the culture and community and want to get the country on your side. Good people make good rugby players. It’s part of being a Lion.”
The management team and players worked hard to ensure that every player supported each other, whether in the Test team or not.
“I remember our first game against the Royal XV in Rustenburg and it was the first Lions game for many of the players,” recalls Howley. “We were playing on the highveld and Keith Earls had just a spray on his hands to help him catch the ball. But given the humidity and heat – it was about 29 degrees – the ball was like a bar of soap and the spray had the opposite effect.
“Earlsy was a good kid, he trained hard, a smart player and quick and was one of the in-form players going on the tour. But the first game on a tour can make you feel 6ft 7ins or have the opposite effect. On a Lions tour it can be about taking your opportunity and I remember sitting down with him on several occasions.
“I put together a video montage of the fantastic tries he had scored for Munster and Ireland so he could remember as a young kid on a journey on a Lions tour and to forget the couple of balls he had dropped and help him out of the mindset after the game.”
Vickery would endure a torrid time in the first Test against the Springbok loosehead Tendai Mtawarira as the Lions struggled to cope with the physicality in the first half in Durban. Despite a thrilling comeback, the defeat tested everyone’s resolve. The bonds they had created held firm, even in defeat.
Vickery fronted up to the media, even doing an interview with Chris Evans who was on Radio Two at the time and despite the huge disappointment, remembers feeling elated for Adam Jones to be given the chance to start the second Test in Pretoria, one of the most brutal international games ever played.
O’Gara too had to deal with the disappointment of conceding the last-minute penalty in the second Test that allowed Morne Steyn to kick the series winning penalty from inside his own half.
The decision to give the players a break after the second Test, with some players opting to go to a game park for a couple of nights, also allowed them the head space to mentally recover from the intensity of the tour. It was a feature that Gatland would also employ to effect on the tours of 2013 and 2017.
“What they needed going into that week was some time off to get ready for one more big effort and it worked,” Davies added.
The series might have been lost in agonising circumstances, but the rousing finish with the 28-9 victory in the third Test at Ellis Park – their first Test victory in eight games - left a collective feeling that the Lions as a concept had been saved.
“I know there were a number of conversations ongoing within World Rugby, Premiership Rugby in the RFU about the future of the Lions,” recalls Howley.
“We'd like to think from a whole management and players’ perspective that the Lions continued, maybe because of that tour, and the culture and the environment that was created over that time.”
There was redemption for Vickery too, in taming the 'Beast' on what would be his last international game. "Walking off that pitch, hearing the crowd chanting 'Lions, Lions' was a feeling I will take with me to my grave."
Davies is in no doubt about the significance of the tour. “I like to think that in 2009 we put the Lions back on the road again. Players wanted to be Lions again. That was the achievement.”