Cotton the key to Johnson appointment
John Taylor
April 16, 2009
Jeremy Davidson, Neil Jenkins, Fran Cotton, Mark Regan and Rob Wainright, British & Irish Lions sponsorship launch, Trafalgar Square, London, England, January 21, 1997
Cotton (centre) was the tour manager for the 1997 trip to South Africa that included players (left to right) Jeremy Davidson, Neil Jenkins, Mark Regan and Rob Wainwright © Getty Images

Ian McGeechan has rightly won many plaudits for his extraordinary feats as Lions Coach but, contrary to what you may have read in just about every national newspaper, he cannot take the credit for appointing Martin Johnson as captain for the victorious 1997 Lions tour to South Africa.

The man who said he wanted 'a big man who would intimidate the opposition from the moment he tossed the coin' was very definitely the manager, Fran Cotton, as he confirmed to me this week.

'We'd not even included Will Carling and the then England captain, Phil de Glanville, in the extended squad,' Cotton recalls. 'So the choice was really between Ieuan Evans and Johnno and I was very much in favour of the big man leading from the front rather than the diminutive winger out on the touchline.'

Cotton says it was his old England and Lions team mate, Peter Wheeler who first alerted him to Johnson's potential. He had stepped in as Leicester's skipper because of injuries and Wheeler was immediately impressed.

Bob Dwyer, the former Wallaby coach, then in charge at Leicester confirmed that he was doing a great job and, finally, Cotton rang Johnson's mother to see whether she thought her boy was up to it.

When she said 'yes' Cotton made his decision and put his recommendation forward to the coaches who accepted it. He then rang Johnson. 'The call lasted no longer than 30 seconds,' says Cotton. 'All Johnno said was "Oh right, OK then" and he put the phone down. It was weird really.'

It was Cotton who appointed McGeechan, then at Northampton, and he asked for Jim Telfer as his assistant. 'We then met at Murrayfield to decide on the style of rugby and the sort of players we needed to beat South Africa. But there was no question as to who was running the show. Cotton was chairman of selectors and even wrote out job descriptions for the first time for everybody in the management team.

Soon after taking on the job McGeechan was despatched to South Africa to watch the Springboks' home matches in the 1996 Tri Nations. Whilst there he talked at length to the All Blacks' captain Sean Fitzpatrick who stressed the need for extra players in certain positions.

In the amateur era the Lions were only allowed a squad of 30 and a player had to leave the tour party before a replacement could be called-in. Fitzpatrick argued that it was essential to have three players in certain positions, hooker and scrum-half for example, because it took all the pressure off the starting XV in the week leading up to a Test. Cotton persuaded the South African Rugby Union that the old rules could no longer apply in the new professional era and for the first time the Lions were allowed to take 34 players.

Among them were a handful of players who had returned from Rugby League once the barriers were down which also caused quite a stir but Cotton admired their professionalism at a time when Union players were still adjusting to being full-time. He knew they possessed exactly the qualities he was looking for.

He remained the face of the Lions on tour - chairing selection, announcing teams and fronting-up at press conferences whatever the news. This allowed his coaches to get on with the job of preparing the team for the next match without ever having to worry about the politics.

It was, of course, a total contrast to the last Lions tour, to New Zealand in 2005, where coach, Clive Woodward, completely took over. He was the one who decided to take a bloated 45 man playing squad (which grew to over 50 with replacements) and a backroom staff of 26.

"I would personally go for O'Driscoll. His contribution was cruelly cut short in 2005 but I don't believe it has left him with any mental scars so I think he deserves a second chance."

He was also the voice and the face of the Lions. Many people are still unaware that Bill Beaumont was actually the manager. The 2009 manger, Gerald Davies, is promising that he will be a much more visible figure.

He says he has been and will continue to be chairman of every committee except selection. He has handed that over to McGeechan because he feels his coach must have a free hand when it comes to picking the team so this time if Paul O'Connell gets the nod in front of Brian O'Driscoll for the captaincy it will be down to him. However, when the waiting is finally over next week Davies will be the man announcing the tour party. He will also be the one announcing teams on tour.

And despite the fact that Gerald and I played together for over a decade and have been friends since we first met as 18 year olds at Loughborough (and spoke to each other this morning) I still haven't a clue who will be the Lions captain. I would personally go for O'Driscoll. His contribution was cruelly cut short in 2005 but I don't believe it has left him with any mental scars so I think he deserves a second chance.

He is now a Grand Slam winning captain so his pedigree has improved. We also know O'Connell is happy to play for him and we know the chemistry works so why take a gamble. If it is O'Connell we will know that even if McGeechan did not come up with the 'big man leading from the front' theory he certainly subscribes to it. Either way they will need all the luck in the world to emulate the 1997 Lions.

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

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