British & Irish Lions
'The glue that held the Lions together'
July 2, 2013
Steve Black pictured alongside Lions head coach Graham Henry © PA Photos
Ask any Lions fan to name the stand-out figure on the 2001 tour Down Under and you are sure to be inundated with votes for a waltzing Brian O'Driscoll while there may also be a fair amount of venom aimed at a punch-happy Duncan McRae while Austin Healey and Justin Harrison may even warrant support as a result of their bromance. But ask the players themselves and you are likely to get a completely different answer.
The Lions came agonisingly close to a victory over the Wallabies having continually teetered on the brink of self-destruction during a tour that so often grabbed the headlines for the wrong reasons. Unrest within the squad, prompted by a dislike of coaching methods and a Test selection decided before they had boarded a plane, threatened to gift-wrap the series for the hosts.
The history books show Australia claimed the glory but the fact the Lions were in the contest until the final moments of decisive third Test is arguably down to one man, neither coach nor player - Steve Black. "He was the glue that held the players and the management together on that tour," insists Rob Henderson, an ever-present in the Test series and one of many to benefit from the input, experience and even just the presence of the one-time bouncer and now full-time merchant of motivation.
Black's popular blend of the physiological and psychological was honed at Newcastle - both United and Falcons - in the 1990s with glowing testimonials reaching Graham Henry who drafted him into his support staff when he took charge of Wales. "We got on well from the first minute," Black told ESPN. "We had a similar competitive nature."
Wales clearly benefited from both men with the side enjoying a record run of 11 consecutive victories during their tenure - including a famous win against England at Wembley - and unsurprisingly an invite from Henry, who has since labelled Black as "the most positive person I've ever met in my life", to join the Lions' management team followed. His exact title remains a mystery but he was, and remains, perfectly clear about his role.
"People try to give you titles but I've never given it much thought during the 41 years I have been involved in sport. I've just tried to help the environment become successful, give support and advice to managers, coaches, players, set up the best way to train, the best way to recover, manage relationships with teams and squads and between players and coaches."
His remit for the Lions tour was as fluid as the delivery that has helped many in sport and business over the years - most notably Jonny Wilkinson. "The main thing you have to do is allow the players to be themselves and be there for them all the time, anytime," he explained. A near-constant presence throughout Wilkinson's career, the World Cup winner's credits him with having played a huge role in his on-going success - "without him I simply wouldn't be here."
Up Close And Personal, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the 2001 tour, offered an insight into the humour Black brought to proceedings - "run at 100% then accelerate" - but the aim was not only to inject some much-need light relief during a gruelling tour. "If people are happy then they are more likely to listen to what people have to say and they are more likely to give what they have to give," insisted Black. "Just look back at your own life when you were in a happier disposition and enjoying the environment, it is important to put a smile on people's faces."
Does he accept he was the 'glue' that prevented the squad falling apart when both Matt Dawson and Healey appeared determined to divide it by going very public with complaints that they were being treated like 'kids'? "You try and act as the link but there are always tensions in teams. What you try and do is make sure the relationships work," said Black who insists 'only one or two had gripes'. "When you are working within any normal team, 99% of the time you can overcome a problem like that. But in the short period of time you have with the Lions it is more difficult to overcome. It was nothing that couldn't be handled but it shouldn't have happened and everyone realises that. But maybe the approach to preparation was justified by the performance in the first Test where we were magnificent - it was one of the great Lions performances of all-time."
The bruising nature of the tour - both on the field and the training ground - took its toll and Black accepts that it may have contributed to the series slipping from the Lions' grasp. "The first Test came at exactly the right time after a reasonable build up but the second Test suffered due to an accumulative fatigue," he said. "I think we did a little bit too much and I can understand why people wanted to do that, but the accumulative fatigue and high emotion of the first Test took it out of us. The third Test was just a great example of the deep resolve and spirit shown in a group of people who really do want to let the British & Irish Lions down.
Steve Black made his name in the North East with both Newcastle United and Falcons © PA Photos
"By the end of the tour it was just a case of keeping everyone up and making sure we didn't do too much on the training field. We had the talent and the confidence but you also need the energy. If you don't have the energy then you can't be enthusiastic. Nothing great was ever achieved without the presence of enthusiasm."
Black is a firm believer that what they did in between the Tests was just as pivotal in deciding the Lions' destiny as the matches themselves. That hindsight may well benefit the current Lions with their series against Australia in danger of going the same way as their 2001 predecessors and with a debate raging about the tourists' decision to take two days out in the build up to the decider.
"What they do between games should be more cerebral than physical," said Black. "The physical work should be limited with greater focus on recovery, so you go into games with the fullest tank possible. The teams that are able to manage their energy are those that can give a true reflection of the talent within the squad.
"You can gel the talent and competencies within the squad quite easily but you need a cerebral understanding of what your role is and what the tactics are. Running quickly is important but only if you are running in the right direction.
"People say we need to rest people each week, but that is not true, the actual game only lasts 80 minutes. The time between the games is actually the problem. The recovery process is still a weak area and people still don't have complete confidence in the fact that people just need to rest. Many still associate the amount of time spent on things with success and it is not necessarily true."
This 'energy management' will factor strongly in both the Lions' and the Wallabies' preparations in the coming days with both having suffered a string of injuries. "If people are tired their decision making goes a little bit and the enjoyment also drops," explained Black. "If you think about the times in your life when you have been fatigued and tired, it takes the shine of your life. If you have more energy and manage that better then all your relationships are better and players have more to give on match day."
The Lions' shortcomings 12 years ago did little to diminish Black's own energy or enthusiasm but he has never been focused on the prize - preferring instead to the take pleasure from the journey. "I am totally driven by ambition and success rather than fear of failure and survival. I've always said this to Jonny too, if you are driven by ambition and want to succeed and keep working towards your potential then you can't go wrong. But you must remember that it's a journey, not a destination."
Lions centre Steve Black and centre Rob Henderson celebrate the first Test victory over Australia in 2001 © PA Photos
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.