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Secret Player: “I learnt of my Lions selection whilst sunbathing”

Huge match-up: The Lions faced Manawatu back in 2015 Rugby World

This column first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Rugby World magazine.


WHERE HAVE those 12 years gone? That’s 12 years since the Lions last headed to New Zealand for a good old-fashioned shellacking, with me along for the ride. That’s right, somehow I was on that plane (then again, who wasn’t?), and I know I wasn’t the only guy who, deep down, knew that travelling down there with any belief in our chances of success involved one gigantic leap of faith.

Strip away all the Clive Woodward-led corporate hoopla, the slogans and hubris, and the majority of the squad’s experiences against the All Blacks suggested there would only be one outcome. To be fair, England had scraped a couple of victories against them, but many of the main men from that team had either had their edge blunted by winning the World Cup or were, quite simply, old and knackered. Looking through the squad list, it is full of names which seem from a different epoch.

Big tickets: Gavin Henson and Jonny Wilkinson in 2005 Rugby World
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These 12-year cycles serve as a pretty good barometer of how rugby, and the world around it, has changed. We went from New Romantic in ‘81 to Grunge in ‘93; from big Gav Hastings in ‘93 to reality TV star Gav Henson in ‘05. Things change – not always for the better. But the pace of change can hardly ever have been so fast, and from here 2005 looks a quainter, more innocent time.

Can we imagine the 2017 squad going through all the hackneyed, mildly embarrassing team-building tasks so beloved by Sir Clive and Geech (Ian McGeechan), painting murals and shaking tambourines? The management would get laughed out of town, and in reality the players of different nations now follow each other so closely on social media, ‘bantering’ away, that much of that getting-to-know-you stuff is obsolete.

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Without wishing to come over all “Whatever happened to white dog poo?”, there was a simplicity to the world back then which could bring a tear of nostalgia to a has-been’s eye. I learnt of my selection whilst sunbathing in Hyde Park – and reading an actual book, made of paper and everything – only when a friend called my Motorola to congratulate me. Back then a notification was still something the court sent you.

As soon as we arrived in Auckland, half of the squad went straight out on a massive bender to “get over the jet lag”, with not even a thought about being caught on camera, and certainly no fear of causing a Myspace storm. And mercifully we hadn’t yet reached peak comments section, so leading up to the tour didn’t have 18 months of tedious, circular online selection debate.

But what about the rugby? Well, Sir Clive’s main concern seemed to be that we all learnt the words to the horrific anthem he had commissioned, The Power of Four, and it was clear from the muttering amongst the English players that they’d had a gutful of his gimmicks and this was very much his last hurrah as a serious coach.

On the other hand, Phil Larder – despite looking like a grandad who’d come straight from the Costa del Crime – definitely knew his stuff, and Dave Reddin, the English conditioning coach, had clearly been a major factor in their success in the early 2000s, and was ahead of his time. He had me doing all sorts: wrestling, tugging, crawling… Oh my, I’ve never been so tired in my life.

Dream team?: Phil Larder (centre) with the rest of the coaching team Rugby World

Apart from forward-thinking conditioners, the core of the party felt like grizzled veterans thrown together for one last mission (think The Wild Geese or Where Eagles Dare). There is a confidence to be had in being surrounded by guys who’ve been there and done it, but Kiwi rugby is no respecter of experience or reputation.

The first signs that we might be seriously under-, or perhaps over-, cooked came as we laboured to put away the provincial teams. If we struggled against guys we’d never heard of, it didn’t bode well for the Tests. As disquiet grew, the unwieldy squad became more and more fractured, which was reflected on the pitch. But at least that anthem was ditched after a couple of games.

I think lessons were learnt from that tour. And who knows, maybe one of the past dozen years’ greatest inventions, the wittily titled WhatsApp group, can provide that one percenter the Lions need…

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