British & Irish Lions
Cotton issues warning to Lions
May 9, 2009
Lions prop forward Fran Cotton in action for the British & Irish Lions, South Africa, 1980
Cotton toured with the Lions as a player in 1974, 1977 and 1980 and again as manager in 1997 © Getty Images

Lions legend Fran Cotton has issued a warning to this summer's elite tourists that South Africa will be better prepared than ever.

The former England prop, capped seven times by the Lions, was a member of the side that went undefeated in South Africa in 1974 and managed the 1997 tour that also ended in a series triumph over the Springboks. This year he believes the Lions will face an equally tough challenge with the hosts gunning for revenge.

"The Lions this year do have a real chance but I think South Africa will be better prepared," said Cotton. "There are lots of similarities with 1997. The opposition are world champions and the Lions are going as underdogs although not quite as big underdogs as they were in '97.

"Back then the fans hadn't seen the Lions for 17 years and they had almost forgotten about what the Lions are. This time it's fresh. The South African players have all been talking about facing the Lions they realise it's a once in a lifetime chance for them."

Lions head coach Ian McGeechan selected his 37-man squad last month but he has already had to contemplate replacements. Munster scrum-half Tomas O'Leary has been ruled out with a broken ankle while a shoulder injury has ended Cardiff Blues centre Tom Shanklin's hopes.

In addition, Munster flanker Alan Quinlan must answer a citing for alleged gouging this week that could result in a tour-ending suspension if he is found guilty. And Cotton insists McGeechan, who was also a member of the 1974 squad and coached the 1997 Lions, will be concerned, especially if he loses key personnel.

"The Lions usually have six or seven players who get injured before the Tests and we are already seeing that," said Cotton. "But there are some certain players who are irreplaceable to the Lions and I just hope we get to the first Test with them all fit and well and then we have a chance."

As with every Lions tour, the task facing the Lions management team is to create a winning team from the best players from the home nations and Cotton is hoping they can conjure something special like their 1997 predecessors.

"Looking back at '97 you knew you had a great set of players but you never know if they are going to bond," he explained. "For me the moment I realised they were a very special set of players was the morning after the first Test. After a tough match it would have been so easy for the players to go out on the beers in Cape Town.

"But the next morning all the Test players got up and went training with the midweek players who were preparing for a game against the Free State. That was the bond those players had and that's what made '97 and '74 so special. The players would do anything for each other."

The Lions begin their 10-match tour of South Africa against a Royal XV in Rustenburg on May 30.

Fran Cotton was speaking at an HSBC Lions Legends event in aid of the Lions Charitable Trust


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