Lions ready to roar again
November 24, 2007
"Woodward's successor has not yet been appointed but he will not be allowed anywhere near as much power under the management of Gerald Davies." John Taylor reports
It was good news all round when the 2009 Lions Tour to South Africa was officially announced on Tuesday.
First and foremost it was confirmation that the Lions concept still has an important role to play in the modern era but just as important was the implicit acceptance that the 2005 tour to New Zealand was a betrayal of everything the Lions stand for and must never be repeated.
That was largely down to the megalomania of Clive Woodward. He insisted on having absolute power and was mistakenly granted it. Whilst his meticulous preparation had undoubtedly helped England win the World Cup in 2003 he was now a runaway train totally out of control.
'This will be the best prepared Lions team ever,' he declared. But he then selected a party of 45 players for an 11 match itinerary (12 if you count the meaningless game against Argentina before they left Britain) and also tried to convince us every player would be given the chance to push for a place in the test team.
Those of us who dared to question his logic were dismissed as old fashioned - stuck in the time warp of amateurism.
He decided the Lions would no longer be a touring side. They would set-up a training camp to prepare for the test matches and send teams off to play the lesser matches as required. His team for the first test had never actually played together before they went into battle against the mighty All Blacks - there was no camaraderie, no sense of 'team', he destroyed everything the Lions are about - it was, predictably, a disaster.
It is already apparent that the next Lions tour will be very different.
Woodward's successor has not yet been appointed but he will not be allowed anywhere near as much power under the management of Gerald Davies.
Lions Chief Executive, John Feehan, diplomatically admitted the mistakes of 2005 when he confirmed the 2009 Lions party would be smaller - 'for rugby reasons' and there would be no repeat of the Argentina debacle - 'the warm-up game split the party immediately and stopped the integration of the squad.'
Davies has already signalled his intention to lead from the front just as Fran Cotton did in 1997 when the Lions astounded the rugby world by defeating South Africa (then as now world champions) 2-1 in the series.
In 2005 we scarcely ever heard from the manager, Bill Beaumont - it was all Woodward and his right hand man, Alastair Campbell. This time round the coach will coach and the manager will do the talking.
The whole idea of taking players from four countries, who have spent most of the second half of the season at each other's throats, and in the space of a few weeks turn them into a cohesive team capable of taking on the best in the world is madness.
It was difficult enough back in the amateur era even when you were away for three months and played 20 or more games and it is even more difficult now that time dictates a 10 match tour with the first test taking place after just five games - but that is part of the romance and the challenge.
As the captain of the 1997 Lions, Martin Johnson, said at the launch, 'This is the last of the classic rugby tours and in terms of pure enjoyment the 1997 trip was the best experience of my career.'
That is from a man who achieved everything in rugby and Davies would almost certainly say the same about 1971 when he played a major part in the Lions only series victory over New Zealand.
The Lions are a complete anachronism but the whole history of inter-hemisphere rugby was built on great touring teams conquering in far off lands against all the odds.
The All Blacks and the Springboks no longer tour - they fly in for a couple of matches and then fly home again - but the Lions keep the tradition alive. It is a unique legacy, the envy of all the other nations and the game would be poorer without them.
I am certain the 2009 Lions will return to being a proper touring side - travelling as a team and acting as a team - and some of the initiatives announced to help the development programmes in the under privileged areas sound really exciting.
Woodward was almost paranoid about secrecy, fences were erected around training pitches to keep people out, supporters were definitely not welcome and the team developed a siege mentality.
Hopefully, that will also disappear. Touring adds an extra dimension to the playing experience. It is also about seeing new places, meeting new people and nowadays, mixing with the thousands of travelling supporters who add so much to the whole occasion.
Of course times have changed but some of the old values still strike a chord. Of course the main aim is to win a test series but the Lions are very special and there is much, much more to it than that.