British and Irish Lions: Sir Ian McGeechan - How to win a series

Sir Ian McGeechan

No man knows the Lions quite like Sir Ian McGeechan. Twice a tourist as a player, and four times the head coach, he is also the last man to lead the Lions to a series victory, back in 1997 in South Africa.

Here, the Scot talks through what is required to achieve the ultimate goal for a British or Irish rugby player.


"When you are looking at putting a group of players together, you have to give them every opportunity to be together, for example sharing bedrooms and sharing a team-room," McGeechan says. "That was the biggest lesson I learnt from 2005. You need to have an area to sit, have a coffee and relax, and to know that in that room there will always be people and something going on."

And McGeechan believes that if the environment is right off the pitch, it will create a culture of excellence on it. He said: "What you don't want is egos. You need someone who is prepared to put everything they have into the jersey and, as support staff, we have to make it as easy as possible for every player to feel that way. If the players all feel that way, then you have an environment to have success in the Test matches."

With 37 players on the tour, and only 15 starting places available in the Test team, dealing with the disappointment of being left out of the side is critical to the harmony of the squad and the chances of success in the Test matches. McGeechan is convinced it is those players who aren't selected that determine the environment.

He said: "I will forever say that Jason Leonard was one of the best Lions I have ever come across because of what he did in 1997 to make sure the two props (who were selected for the Tests) were ready to go in and do a job. It's the midweek team that sets the environment and if the environment is right, the Test team will be right."

In 2005, Sir Clive Woodward experimented with splitting the tour in two, so the Test team could have maximum preparation time to take on New Zealand. But while this may have been a sound concept in theory, McGeechan is sure that the squad has to stay together.

"In 1997, we won the first Test in Cape Town and we were heading out for dinner. Jonno (captain Martin Johnson) got up on the bus on the way to the restaurant - everyone was excited after the win - and he just said: 'We are a team and we have to prepare for a game on Tuesday night. The Test team will be there at 9 o'clock in the morning to hold the tackle bags'.

"Not one player was late to get on the bus. You know then that you have the right environment, and the players understand what it is to be a Lion."


Even though the Lions play six matches before the first Test against Australia in Brisbane, McGeechan says coach Warren Gatland will have long been considering how to beat the Wallabies. And according to McGeechan, victory in the Tests is all that really counts.

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Gatland confident of Lions success

"You are there to win the Test matches," he said. "If you lose a provincial game it isn't the end of the world, as long as you win the Test matches.

"In 2009, we didn't plan to beat the provincial teams. We planned for the first Test that was five games away."

And although Gatland may have an idea of who he wants to pick in his starting XV come 22 June, McGeechan is adamant that a Lions coach has to have an open mind when it comes to selection.

"They all have to wear a starting Lions jersey in the first three games," he said. "Then it's up to the coaches to look at combinations, but keep an open mind and say the full combination won't be put together until Test week.

"There is no midweek team and no Test team for the first five weeks of the tour. Until the first Test it's one Lions team, wearing a Lions jersey."


British Lions team
The British and Irish Lions were last victorious on a tour in 1997

"If you know your opponent you are halfway towards knowing what you need to beat them," says McGeechan.

In 2009, we looked very hard at South Africa, and it was the same in 1997 when I spent a week with the All Blacks a year before. You have to understand what you need to win a Test series."

And McGeechan believes targeting the opposition's talisman is a crucial way of gaining the upper hand.

"In 1989, scrum-half Rob Jones and I spoke long and hard about putting pressure on Australia's scrum-half Nick Farr-Jones," McGeechan added. "Tactically, Rob understood that if he got the better of Farr-Jones, it was a way of keeping Australia under pressure. It meant they couldn't do what they wanted, which gave us the edge.

"But in the end it's the game you play that will beat your opponent, not just the negativity of stopping them playing. You don't win Lions Tests by going into your shell."


For all the talk of preparation, selection and spirit in the squad, McGeechan acknowledges that the Test matches can be won and lost by the finest of margins. And it's when the stakes are at their highest that the big-game players - or in McGeechan words the "Test-Match Animals" - can make the difference.

"A Lions Test can be brutal, and when you are looking at winning Test matches, I would love to say, as a coach, it is about being tactically brilliant. But actually what it is all about is the excellence of repeating the basics, and being able to make a difference for half a second in a game.

"The Test-Match Animal is never prepared to be second. The Test-Match Animal knows what is required and he does it again and again and again, and he does it in such a physical, determined and focused way that he is never going to be second."

Despite being on the losing side, Simon Shaw's performance in the second Test in 2009 was an example of a player scaling new heights according to McGeechan, who also cites the victorious second Test in Durban in 1997.

"In the build-up to Jerry Guscott's drop-goal (which sealed the series win), there are a number of things that players did so well. It was about players doing what was required to keep the pressure on South Africa."

And while a Lions tour is all about the collective, McGeechan says it is up to every player in the squad to make sure they are fulfilling their individual responsibilities as a Lion.

"If every player that is on the tour is putting everything he can into that jersey, and that environment around that jersey is the best he can make it, then you are on for winning the series."

Will they beat Australia this time?

"Yes, I think they will," McGeechan said.

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