Doddie Weir (bottom left) and Gregor Townsend (top right) remember the 1997 Lions tour

Credit: ALL SPORT/SHUTTERSTOCK/STUART NICOL

As the clock ticks down towards the first Test, Doddie Weir and Lions coach Gregor Townsend caught up to discuss old times, the ingredients that make for a winning tour and who are the biggest characters in the 2021 squad.

Daniel Schofield: You both played on that special 1997 tour to South Africa. What are the memories that are really lodged in your mind 24 years on?

Doddie Weir: Probably my abiding memory was boarding the plane and turning left. That was the first time I had ever travelled first class. To me that was a big thing because without being too blasé, with Jim [Telfer] and Geech [Ian McGeechan] we had played in some in pretty big games for Scotland but you are largely playing the same teams. It does not change your mindset at all. That changes with the Lions. When you are touring with players such as Dai Young, Martin Johnson, Jerry Guscott, Lawrence Dallaglio you know you need to step up.

Gregor Townsend: I have lots of memories, very similar to yours. I remember when we first turned up at lunchtime and there was a nervousness around where you sat. We didn’t know too many people from other teams. That week was about forming relationships. You form them on the field and off the field whether that is the guy you room with or the guy you sit next to at meal times. But it really all came together in the the night out we had before we left. That was proper team building and we ended up back at the hotel late at night. I vividly remember talking to Mark Regan and being in absolute stitches. That set up the team for the adventure we went on.

DW: Are you using some of these ideas into preparing this team now? Can you booze like we did or do you have to find another way to build a team?

GT: There is always a place for that. The squad first met each other on admin day. At the end of the day, we had three big tables of players and two tables of management with a few beers. That was at 10pm. A couple of hours later the management table went down to one and the players to two tables. At 2am it became one table. You could literally see the bonds being built. 

When I spoke to the Scottish players when we flew back the next day, they said it was brilliant to get to know everyone. Warren [Gatland] knows this formula works: hard work on the field but a chance to relax off it. It will be the better team not the best individuals that will win this series. That’s what we are striving for.

Some of the players have told us it is the hardest training they have done. That’s when you build bonds, too. When the guy next to you is breathing really heavy then you know they are putting the work in. Or there’s a respect when you hit them hard in the tackle. They are a quality group of men. The level of play and effort in training has been great to see.

The Lions forwards pack down in training

Credit: SHUTTERSTOCK

DW: That’s why I think we did so well in 1997 because there was such a good bond. But you can only bond with good guys. How much was your selection influenced by that need to make sure you had the right blend of characters?

GT: That was one of the first things that Warren said – that we were looking to select good people. That can mean a number of things. How I interpreted it was players who were comfortable being away from home for a long time, who can support the team when they are not selected and who are open to coaching. Who want to win and want to get better. He had the experience of the last couple of tours of guys who did really well and those who didn’t. So that was definitely a factor, yes.

DW: Let’s cut the c–p. Who are the characters of today’s team? Who are the shaggers?

GT: I can’t believe you asked me that question! There’s certainly lot of characters. On admin day I would say Stuart Hogg led the charge. I remember him giving a pint to Warren Gatland and calling Buffalo for drinking with his right hand.

DS: Who’s closest to filling the Doddie role from 1997?

DW: Don’t you mean who’s the best looking guy, the guy who loves training and is the most naturally skilful?

GT: No one. There’s only one Doddie. Maybe Tadhg Beirne could fill that role. Every time I shank a kick in training, which I like to think is not all that often, he’s always the first one with a dig. I’m keeping an eye on him.

DS: How important is it to have someone who brings that sense of humour and energy?

GT: Oh, it’s massive. We realise we have to create our own energy and enjoy each other’s company. That applies to the management as well. We take our roles and responsibilities very seriously but we don’t take ourselves all that seriously. It is good to have humour. It happens in meeting, sometimes on the training field and it definitely happens when we get to relax.

DS: Are either of you surprised how the Lions have managed to retain their mystique and standing in the game despite the advent of professionalism?

GT: I suppose I am surprised in a way but I am so glad. There are a few traditions that have gone in rugby. The Barbarians probably doesn’t retain the place it used to. The amateur game has lost lots of its link with the professional and international game. So it is a bit of a paradox that the Lions has increased its value and its standing. You saw how much it meant to players to be selected. It is still a very special team. 

Supporters have made a huge difference. In 1997, we had about 4-5,000 come out but the last few years it has been around 30-40,000 and it would have been the same this year as well had they been allowed to do.

DW: I totally agree with Gregor there. It is an institution that has been going since 1888 and much the same as the Olympics it retains its mystique because it only happens once every four years. I was able to go as a supporter to New Zealand four years ago and we had one of the best times ever. Every day I made a new set of friends. It was absolutely fantastic. You go to the pub, you see someone in red with a beer and they would always have a story to tell.

Gregor Townsend (left) and Doddie Weir (right) pictured together in 2019

Credit: STUART NICOL

DW: How much will you miss the supporters in South Africa?

GT: We definitely will. I would imagine on Lions tours in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s they were proper away games. The last few Lions tour have almost felt like home games with the amount of red jerseys in the crowd. Not having supporters at all takes away from the atmosphere. We had two training sessions in Jersey with supporters watching. The players came in and were asking, ‘were there over 5,000 people there today?’ and we said, ‘no, it was less than 1,000’, but that’s the impact they create.

DS: What lessons can you learn from the success of that 1997 tour?

DW: I would say the same thing I did in a video to the boys, that I can only hope they win the series because I don’t want ever to see the film of Jerry Guscott being the hero again. It makes it look like he won the tour by himself – which he probably thinks he did! – but it was a team effort. They will win together, but it is an opportunity for a new hero to emerge.

GT: I agree with Doddie. Being on a Lions tour is a special experience and a privilege but it is much more special and much more memorable when you win. We want to look back on a win against the world champions.