South Arica 2021 will be Paul Stridgeon's fourth Lions tour

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Who is the most important member of the Lions touring party? Warren Gatland as head coach is clearly top of the list but who comes next? Convincing arguments can be made for attack coach Gregor Townsend and captain Alun Wyn Jones, both of whom will be critical to the Lions’ chances of success against the Springboks.

Then there is Paul “Bobby” Stridgeon. Product of St John Fisher, the famous rugby factory which has produced Owen Farrell and Shaun Edwards, Stridgeon never amounted to much with an oval ball – “I was s—-” – but found his niche in wrestling and then strength and conditioning. He started learning that latter trade as a 21 year-old at Wasps under Gatland and has been by his side more or less ever since with Wales and the Lions. As Martyn Williams, a 2009 Test starter and the current Wales team manager, says, he is the “best in the world at what he does.”

“You come across a lot of guys in their jobs who are highly qualified and know unbelievable detail but don’t have that human touch,” Williams says. “Then you have some guys who are really funny and have loads of energy but they are not quite on the top of the detail. Bobby ticks all the boxes and that’s what makes him unique.”

This will be Stridgeon’s fourth tour. As head of strength and conditioning, it is his team’s job to physically prepare a squad, many of whom have played back-to-back seasons, to face the world champions. Yet Stridgeon’s role extends way beyond the gym. A star of past Lions documentaries, Stridgeon is integral to breaking down barriers and building bonds within the squad with his unique, often meticulous brand of comedy. 

From wrestling and beating players twice his size to flagpoling (more of which later) or paragliding into Wales’ World Cup training camp to the James Bond theme, Stridgeon knows how to break the ice the moment that frost is developing between players. 

If anything, he has set too high a bar for himself having roped in David Beckham, Dolph Lundgren and members of the Royal Family to present the ‘Bobby Cup’, his personal award for the best trainer, a tradition that dates back more than 20 years. “That’s an unofficial part of the role but sometimes it is the most stressful because you have to make everyone laugh,” Stridgeon tells Telegraph Sport. “There’s big expectations for it. Delivery is the easy part, it is the planning that takes the time.”

  • Lions Tour 2021 full fixtures in South Africa

The laughter serves a serious purpose. Tommy Bowe, a tourist in 2013 and 2017, says Stridgeon knew exactly which buttons to push, setting personal best gym scores as a result. “There’s a reason Warren takes him everywhere with him,” Bowe said. In their first week’s training in Jersey, players were fitted with individual altitude masks which limit the amount of oxygen that can be taken on in watt bike sessions. “We will train at a higher intensity than when we are playing so we are stepping up to training and step down to play and the games feel less intense,” Stridgeon says. “It is all about being at our physical peak for the Test series, that’s all that matters.”

Paul Stridgeon (right) has been one of Warren Gatland's key lieutenants for years

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The trick is to provide just enough light to pull them through. “If you are not happy, you won’t train as hard,” Stridgeon says. “If you can put smiles on faces outside of training and at certain times in training then you are going to get more out of them and they work harder for you. I would say 30 per cent of my job is the culture stuff and getting the boys entertained and keeping them happy.” 

The ability to lighten the mood is even more important with the raft of Covid-19 restrictions that the Lions must live by. Safaris and sundowners on the beach will be off limits so all entertainment will have to be in-house. During the Six Nations, England suffocated in their own bubble, but contrary to expectations Stridgeon believes the Lions can make the protocols work to their advantage.

“I said to the boys last week that people are talking about being in the bubble as being a negative, but for me when we went to New Zealand, every rest day Wednesdays and Sundays was a travel day so the boys never actually got a day off,” Stridgeon says. “Towards the end of the tour in New Zealand, Warren told me a stat that in the first 15 days we had done 10 hotels. 

“We are not actually doing that much travelling other than going between Johannesburg and Cape Town. The rest days will be proper rest days. It is better for us because we can get more training done on training days if we know the boys can properly rest the following day. Because we are in the bubble we can gel faster. We have to spend more time together because we are forced to. They will enjoy other’s company because 99 per cent of rugby players are brilliant blokes. On a Lions tour, no matter whether you are a player or backroom staff, being a good tourist is just as important as being good at your job.”

Being a good tourist is not just about being an excellent drinker – see Best, R – but sacrificing your ego for the sake of the team. Dan Biggar did not play a minute of Test rugby on the last tour to New Zealand but did all he could to assist Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton. “As soon as he was not involved, he did not sulk,” Stridgeon says. “He just got on with it. Kicking balls back to them, helping them out; do you need this, do you need that? That’s a true Lion. I went up to him at the end and said, ‘mate, you have been absolutely brilliant’.” 

Dan Biggar was the perfect team player on the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand

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Stridgeon makes clear there is a particular time and place for jokes. There is very little laughter on the training pitch or gym. But when the opportunity presents itself, Stridgeon is happy to wheel out his party pieces whether flagpoling – where he holds his body perpendicular to said flagpole – or taking on any comers in wrestling. 

Williams remembers when Stridgeon, who represented England at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, issued an open challenge during the 2009 tour to South Africa. “It was at the end of a forwards session and we were gathered in a circle and he took on John Hayes, Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery and put them all on thier backs,” Williams says. “Bobby must be nine stone soaking wet and seeing him flick these boys who are twice the size of him. It was a great marker for him to put down but I don’t know if he could do it now.”

Twelve years on, Stridgeon still reckons he has got it. “Always mate, nobody has beaten me yet!”

Lions 2021: The other members of Paul Stridgeon’s team

Jamie George: I am 100 per cent ready to step up from lower-tier rugby

by Gary Fitzgerald

Jamie George claims he would be 100 per cent ready both in body and mind for full-on Lions action if Warren Gatland decided to fast-track him into his team for the tour warm-up with Japan.

Gatland names his line-up for the Murrayfield encounter on Tuesday. The head coach hopes it will provide the perfect base upon which to build another successful Lions tour, this time to South Africa.

The New Zealander must decide whether hooker George’s Six Nations exploits with England in February and March, plus his eight club appearances from Saracens’ 10 Championship games – where he packed down against the likes of Ampthill, Doncaster and Jersey – are sufficient for the 30-year-old, who has just arrived in the squad’s Jersey camp, to warrant immediate selection.

George said: “I would love to play because it is the chance to play for the Lions on home soil, which doesn’t come around very often. I will take every opportunity I can to wear that jersey. Many of the games in the Championship are as physical as any we are going to play anywhere, especially in the front-five forwards. There are a lot of very good players in it. It is probably not as quick as the Premiership but, in terms of the physicality, it is right up there.

“There are challenges because game time is obviously a big thing and the Championship was reduced to just 10 games because of Covid, but we have still had enough time on the field recently and I would be 100 per cent ready if picked.

“We have also been fortunate to have someone like Phil Morrow, who heads up our performance and was on the previous Lions tour to New Zealand. He knows what it takes to get yourself physically and mentally right to go on that tour. He has been tailoring our programme to make sure we hit the ground running when we got to Jersey.”