By Alan Dymock
YESTERDAY, AMONGST the luxurious trappings of the Syon Park in the west of London, the 2013 British and Irish Lions had their first meeting.
Like lucky competition winners 36 of the 37 tourists queued up for their issues of stash, expecting kilos of kit and flip flops. Only a niggle-pestered Brian O’Driscoll was left with the medical staff at Leinster following the close-fought RaboDirect Pro12 semi against Glasgow Warriors at the weekend.
Northampton Saints and England hooker Dylan Hartley tweeted that it was like the first day of school, and it’s easy to see why.
Boys were measured throughout the day for their new uniforms. The youngest tourist, Stuart Hogg, was given tour mascot Bil the Lion to nurture and protect. The two stand-offs Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell were called to the headmaster’s office to talk tactics for an hour. People were expected to make friends quickly.
There is not much turnaround. The squad leave for Hong Kong on May 27, and the stragglers who are playing in Aviva Premiership and Pro12 finals will join up the day before. That means that 22 of the 37 will be with Warren Gatland and his backroom staff for the week before departure.
It is an inconvenient time. The finals have to be negotiated, but with the schedule for the Lions tour previously hammered out between the Lions and the ARU it is a case of having to make do with the time allocated.
This is a professional tour. In 1966 the Lions took on a coach for the first time and despite their amateur status dedicated two weeks in Bournemouth to prepare for their trip to New Zealand.
After the last amateur tour, the New Zealand tour of 1993, coach Ian McGeechan said in a report: “I felt it was important that we had an additional weekend together, but this was very dificult to organise because of club commitments… It seems ridiculous to me that we were finally at the mercy of the clubs as to how could organise preperation.” The master knew then and built into the next trip.
The first professional tour, the 1997 series victory over South Africa, was one where ample time was given up for days of team-building and a night, two days before they flew south, where everyone was encouraged to wire into some free beer.
That new-age management approach has become a parody of itself in recent years, of course, with the David Brent-style enforcement of motivational speeches and collage painting being mixed with hard graft in 2001 and 2005. The Graham Henry tour of Australia in ’01 was notable for a few weeks of physical training before they played Western Australia and in 2005 many were very open about their lack of appreciation for Sir Clive Woodward’s arts and crafts time during a week at the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel.
These are examples of how it is to be done and also how not to do it, by scheduling too much like kindergarten teachers with ADHD.
Mind you, Gatland is shrewd and was present in 2009 when the squad mixed a week or so of prep at Pennyhill Park with meeting up for drinks and singing before they left for South Africa. He knows to treat his tourists like adults and while he may not get as much training time with every player as he would like – indeed the farcical turnaround for the players in finals is a tough one to budget for – but they must make the best of what they can.
In the next few weeks bonds can be forged that hold the tour together.