The best of weeks, the worst of weeks
John Taylor
May 20, 2009

This is the best of weeks and the worst of weeks for the would-be Lions.

They will be thrilled to be meeting up with their new team-mates but they will also be full of trepidation. Hard as they try to put it to the back of their minds, there will be this unwelcome, nagging worry that injury could still deprive them of that coveted trip to South Africa.

Tomas O'Leary and Tom Shanklin have already had their dreams shattered and there will undoubtedly be more injuries during the tour but to get one this week is the toughest break of all.

In my day we decamped to Eastbourne College for a week's preliminary training and it was a weird feeling - we were in the departure lounge but the flight could still be cancelled. What made it worse was that there was nothing preventing us from going a week early. Back in the '60s and '70s serious rugby stopped at Easter and then Sevens took over.

There had to be a real advantage in getting used to the conditions in the country we were visiting, especially when it was South Africa where the thin air of the high veldt left your lungs bursting for more oxygen until your body acclimatised. But protocol dictated otherwise - for some daft reason you were only allowed one week before the first game.

Nowadays, the five star luxury of Pennyhill Park has replaced bleak old Eastbourne and there is no question of going out any earlier. The Heineken and European Challenge Cup Finals dictate the timetable.

That doesn't change the dilemma facing the players. They are raring to go and desperately want to put down a marker but they are terrified of getting injured themselves or, almost but not quite worse, injuring a fellow player.

Before my first tour, to South Africa in 1968, I was rooming with Bryan West, the England flanker, and, having passed the final medical after the last training session on English soil, burst triumphantly through the door to pack my case only to discover him in tears.

He had arrived with a minor knee injury and having exacerbated it in training had failed his medical. Suddenly, having expected to spend three months exploring Africa - the trip and the chance of a lifetime - it was back to Loughborough to take his finals.

He had to hand over his blazer - 'sorry old chap you're not actually a Lion yet' - to his replacement, Roger Arneil, - cruelly, it fitted perfectly. There was a happy ending on that occasion; West joined the party half way through as a replacement and at last got to wear the blazer.

The atmosphere in a Lions squad is completely different to anything else you will ever experience. The Musketeers motto - 'All for one and one for all' - rules but your room-mate is quite likely to be your biggest rival for a place in the Test team and you desperately want to put down a marker.

It can work for or against. In 1971 Fergus Slattery and I went head to head in almost every training session. Every sprint, every tackle, every maul was a battle for the Test spot and I would like to believe it spurred us on to greater heights.

Fortunately we became good mates, revelling in the competition, but it can be destructive. Barry Williams and Mark Regan, lost it completely in a particularly intense scrummaging session in 1997 and started knocking lumps out of each other - and they both knew Keith Wood was No.1.

The coaches now have a dilemma. This should be a getting to know you week with no contact sessions but they have less than a month and effectively only five games (there are actually six but Ian McGeechan will not want any of his Test team playing mid-week) before they select their team for the first Test so they do not have that luxury.

A lot of people predicted the demise of the Lions when rugby went professional but they have been proved wrong. The host countries (who make a fortune out of the only remaining international touring side), the fans and, most important of all, the players still adore the concept.

There is a real danger that might not last. The odds will always be against them but they must never become impossible and that might happen if the players' other bosses - the clubs/provinces/regions - will not grant them an extended summer leave once every four years.

In 1971 we played 12 games before the first Test so there was plenty of time to bed down as a team. In 1997 when the number of matches was halved they still played eight before taking on the Springboks.

This is the shortest tour ever. I believe it is too short and I think that makes the task nigh on impossible. I hope I'm wrong.

John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to

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