The team in full is below. Disagree with Mick’s selections? Leave a comment to let us know who you would have picked and why.
1 – Ian McLauchlan
(Scotland, 8 Lions caps, 1971, 1974)
How difficult it is to overlook the likes of Fran Cotton, Jason Leonard, Tom Smith and others, hard, durable men who performed heroics in their respective eras. But then so did Ian ‘Mighty Mouse,’ McLauchlan, the squat force of nature that was the cornerstone of the Lions pack in both 1971 and 1974, not just meeting the challenge of the All Blacks and Springboks but helping take the forward game to them. There is little doubt that if the Mouse and his mates up front had not been able to do a number on the vaunted opposition then we would not have been lauding the likes of Gareth Edwards, Barry John and those gilded butterflies across the back line.
McLauchlan stepped up to the mark with his low-centred, straight-backed scrummaging, hence the nickname, one that may well give an indication of his physical stature but does nothing to convey the true ferociousness and resilience of his play at the coal-face. In these more scrutinised times, with TV cameras peering into every nook and cranny it is easy to forget just how brutal the game could be back then and certainly was so on that ’71 tour. It was considered a matter of local pride to try and rough up the Lions ahead of the test series so as to give the All Blacks the best possible chance. Canterbury went beyond the pale in endorsing that unspoken obligation just before the first test, inflicting such acts of violence that props, Ray McLoughlin and Sandy Carmichael, were ruled out of consideration. One man falls, another steps forward. Mighty Mouse did the Lions proud, even scoring the only try of the match in a 9-3 test win in Dunedin. That was the start of something very special for him in the no.1 shirt, an immovable object the length and breadth of New Zealand and South Africa.
Ian McLauchlan playing for the Lions against Natal on the 1974 tour
Credit: Colorsport / Colin Elsey
2 – Keith Wood
(Ireland, 5 Lions caps, 1997 and 2001)
There he was, leading the charge as usual, breaking out from defence at King’s Park in Durban, intent not just on a token clearance of the lines after yet more fierce pressure from the Springboks but all too aware of the need to get down into South Africa territory if only to gain some respite. And so it was that Keith Wood put his team in a position from where Jeremy Guscott dropped the goal, an unlikely scenario in its own right, that won the series for the Lions after they had stunned the world champions in the opening test at Newlands seven days earlier.
Wood was one of several in that squad that had such a vivid presence about them, a deep sense of mateship and cussedness, be it a Scott Gibbs or John Bentley, that was to enable the Lions to overturn the odds and make such an inedible impression on so many. The British and Irish Lions are such a success story these days that it takes some doing to recall just how under threat they were as they embarked for South Africa to take on the Springboks. It was the first tour following the decision to turn the game professional and many felt that this would be the last hurrah for the Lions. Wood epitomised the deep-rooted spirit of the group, shaped by the splendid management team of Ian McGeechan and Fran Cotton. The dramatic denouement of that second test encapsulated what the Lions were all about. South Africa had so much in their favour as their tally of three tries to nil indicated, Neil Jenkins’ unerring boot keeping them in the contest. Wood was an irrepressible force, a man who lifted all those around him by the thrust and marked defiance of his play, qualities that he was to bring to bear again four years later in Australia. There were other hookers in the frame, from John Pullin of 1971 vintage, hard-nosed Bobby Windsor in the heart of things in South Africa in ’74 and on to Peter Wheeler who put in sizeable shifts on the following two tours.
Keith Wood carries against the Springboks in the first 1997 Test
Credit: Alex Livesey/ALLSPORT
3 – Graham Price
(Wales, 12 Lions caps, 1977, 1980, 1983)
Who can ever forget the sight of Graham Price galloping down almost the entire length of the Parc des Princes for a stunning try on debut in 1975, a brilliant athletic effort that had hundreds of props checking the provenance of his membership of the front-row union? But that was Price, unique and layered even if he was never quite to repeat that outrageous feat. But what he did achieve, a record-breaking 12 consecutive test appearances across three tours of Lions duty, was without equal, testimony to his longevity for sure but also to his status as the best tight-head prop in these parts and probably in the world.
Even if he did announce himself in such spectacular fashion, it was Price’s attention to the basics of tighthead play that marked him down as one of the sport’s finest. Certainly there would be few players that would have cause to question with his selection for any team. There would be no dissenters to be found in Pontypool where Price was the last addition to what Max Boyce dubbed the ‘Viet Gwent,’ that trio of hombres that did such sterling service for club, country and the Lions, fellow front-rowers, Charlie Faulkner and Bobby Windsor. They were great characters in their individual rights and even more formidable as a unit, honed under the steely, educated eye of Ponty coach, Ray Prosser. Price was a rock, technically right on top of his brief, with grit and a will-to-win at his core. A brutal attack by Wallaby Steve Finanne shattered Price’s jaw on a Wales tour but despite a long period of recovery, and the need to wear dentures for the rest of his days, Price returned to the front-line, first choice on subsequent Lions tours to South Africa in 1980 and New Zealand in 1983, the greatest tighthead of his or any generation.
Graham Price during the first Test against New Zealand in 1983
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
4 – Martin Johnson
(England, 8 Lions caps, 1993, 1997, 2001)
Ian McGeechan has always believed in backing his hunches and he knew that Martin Johnson was the man he wanted to captain the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa. New head coach, Clive Woodward, had made Lawrence Dallaglio his England captain. McGeechan, though, had other plans. "I wanted someone that the Springboks would have to literally look up at when he knocked on the dressing-room door for the toss," said McGeechan. Dallaglio is no midget and opposition players don’t tend to do any dressing-room door knocking these days. But the image was crystal clear and appropriate. The Lions were not going to take a backward step and Johnson was the man to lead from the front. His appointment set the tone for an invigorating Lions tour, the first of the professional era, a success story that had its roots in the smart, deep-rooted planning done by McGeechan and the man who had ridden shotgun alongside him on the Scotland beat, Jim Telfer.
Johnson typified the hard core at the centre of the Lions play on that trip, a mature, rounded presence four years after he had made a hurried international debut for England and then the Lions, both times deputising for Wade Dooley. Johnson is a player’s captain, faithful, enduring and always prepared to do the hard yards himself. He was a fine lock forward, too, well-schooled in the basics, never wavering from his first line of duty, anchoring the scrum, securing ball in the lineout also before smashing the bejesus at every ruck. His steadfastness was such that he became the first man to ever lead the Lions on two tours when Graham Henry appointed him for the job in Australia in 2001. It was to prove a difficult tour under Henry who admitted later that he had not understood the special chemistry needed for a successful Lions party. Johnson certainly did.
Martin Johnson finds a gap during the first Test against the Springboks in 1997
5 – Maro Itoje
(England, 3 Lions caps, 2017, 2021)
What, no Willie John McBride? Or Paul O’Connell, two of Ireland’s very finest, with eight tours of duty between them, two captaincy shifts and 24 test appearances in Lions’ livery? Surely some mistake? Well, it would have been the easiest thing to have put either of them in this XV, the only difficulty being which of them would partner Johnson. The celebrated Englishman is our first pick and indeed will captain the side when it runs out just as soon as Covid-19 restrictions permit. McBride is Johnson of another era, a formidable presence, a rugged, unforgiving sort, a rallying figure, an enforcer in times when such a sort had a role to play. Johnson or McBride? Take your pick and we go with Johnson. O’Connell shares many of those attributes but he can also add a bit more athleticism to the mix as shown so often in the colours of Ireland. The Munsterman, though a dignified, durable type, did not hit his customary heights when leading the Lions in South Africa in 2009.
Itoje, though, has the all-round game to thrive and is certainly a more productive presence at the breakdown. Of course the 26-year-old is still raw by comparison with the Irishmen but there is no doubting his potential to prosper and it would be a brave man that would bet against him featuring on at least the next Lions tour to Australia, securing the full set of three trips. The Saracen would only be 33 when the next tour to New Zealand is scheduled to take place in 2029, too. Itoje is the perfect foil to Johnson, more dynamic, more wide-ranging, a moving target in the lineout and a real nuisance on opposition ball. There will be howls of protest about the omission of a man such as McBride who is the considered the epitome of the Lions esprit de corps as the man who coined the ‘99’ call on the 1974 tour to South Africa. But Itoje it is.
6 – Richard Hill
(England, 5 Lions caps, 1997, 2001, 2005)
Richard Hill epitomises the key virtue of any Lions squad – that of selflessness. Unless every single player buries his ego before the plane has taken off from Heathrow, then the tour is doomed. Hill is a team man first and foremost, so often cited by his peers as a player’s player: faithful, reliable, consistent and, just in case these qualities appear too dry and mundane, hard-core and relentless also. It may well be that Bath’s Jon Hall got my vote in an all-round England XV but Hill, of course, would have been just as worthy a selection.
In the colours of the Lions all his assets came to the fore, initially on the tour to South Africa in 1997 when he was part of a physical back-row alongside Lawrence Dallaglio and Tim Rodber. Hill, of course, was an openside flanker by inclination but often traded places so as accommodate Neil Back, who took his place in the dead-rubber third test in Johannesburg after the series had been clinched at King’s Park in Durban. Sam Warburton had claim on the no.6 shirt in this dream-team selection so as to allow contenders such as Tony Neary, Peter Winterbottom and Fergus Slattery scope on the openside. Warburton was a fine Lion himself as befits a two-time captain, successful in Australia and drawing a series in New Zealand. But we are spoiled for riches at flanker. What about Roger Uttley, a rugged-faced Colossus on the 1974 tour to South Africa or Mike Teague who almost single-handedly wrenched the 1989 series in Australia back the way of the Lions? But Hill trumps them all, steadfast against the ‘Boks in 1997 and hugely influential four years later in Australia when the Lions look set for a clean sweep against the Wallabies until the very moment in the second test in Melbourne when Hill was clattered high and dangerously by centre, Nathan Grey, and the momentum swung as the Saracens flanker was taken groggily from the field. Hill gave of his all for the Lions.
Nathan Grey tackles Richard Hill during the second Test against Australia in 2001
7 – Fergus Slattery
(Ireland, 4 Lions caps, 1974)
Fergus Slattery was a bold, vivid player, indefatigable in attack, resolute in defence, fit and furious in all that he did, firstly on the tour to New Zealand in 1971 when he would have won his first Lions cap only to fall ill on the morning of the third test in Wellington and John Taylor recover his place in the starting line-up. The Welshman, a fine player in his own right, principled, too, in refusing to tour apartheid South Africa in 1974, made the most of his reprieve in playing a blinder and getting the nod ahead of Slattery for the last test.
Slattery was in his element in South Africa, hard in the tackle as anyone playing against the Springboks has to be and relentless, as well as speedy, in his pursuit of the ball. Slattery was to end his career as the world’s most capped flanker with a total of 65 international appearances, a weighty tour of duty from the Blackrock College player. He might even have gone down as the man who clinched a Grand Slam clean sweep for the Lions after he seemingly touched down in the closing moments of the fourth test in Johannesburg only for the referee to have ruled that the Irishman had not grounded the ball properly, a decision that was baffling to all non-South African observers watching. The fact that the referee, Max Baise, as was the wont at the time, was South African, had, of course, nothing to do with the decision even though it did help spare the Springboks of total humiliation as they managed to scrape a 13-13 draw, the only non-victory on the Lions’ ledger of account. The 1974 side were the first tourists from anywhere in the world to win a series in South Africa since 1896 and posted all manner of points records in the process. Slattery was very much part of that triumph.
Fergus Slattery in action during the 1971 Lions tour
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
8 – Mervyn Davies
(Wales, 8 Lions caps, 1971 and 1974)
And to think that there might have been many more splendid deeds to have come from Merve ‘The Swerve’ Davies but for the savage blow of a brain haemorrhage following the Welsh Cup semi-final in 1976 that ended his career and almost his life. Davies had captained Wales to a Grand Slam in that year and there was every likelihood that he would have been given the honour of leading the Lions to New Zealand the following year, a task that was taken on by his compatriot Phil Bennett on what was to prove a challenging trip. Davies, lean, rangy and softly spoken, was a modern-day player in the mould of All Black, Kieran Read, an intelligent and wide-roving player, an accomplished lineout operator to boot as New Zealand captain, the gruff Colin Meads, was to observe at the end of the 1971 tour when he acknowledged that Davies had had the opposition ‘donkey-licked,’ at the tail of the lineout. Andy Ripley had gone on that 1974 tour as the slight favourite to get the nod for tests only for Davies’ dexterous athleticism to win the day. Ripley later confided to me that it took him years to come to terms with the decision. But who could argue against Davies?
There are several other contenders, be it the father and son Quinnell double act, Derek and Scott, or Dean Richards, so prominent in Australia and New Zealand in 1989 and then 1993. Lawrence Dallaglio, too, gave mighty service to the Lions cause. Any one of these players would fit the bill. But Davies it is, ever-present in two of the most celebrated tour parties ever to leave these shores and return with reputations well and truly enhanced. The only regret of a marvellous career is that it might have been longer and even more glittering.
9 – Gareth Edwards
(Wales, 10 Lions caps, 1968, 1971, 1974)
No contest. Scrum-half is the only position where it is a waste of any selector’s time to run the rule over possible alternatives of which there ought to be many given that the Lions is the best of the best from four countries and spanning several decades. Dickie Jeeps from the 50s? Robert Jones and his sneaky, pre-meditated little stamp on Nick Farr-Jones that triggered the Lions fightback against the Wallabies in 1989? The Matt Dawson show-and-go show at Newlands in 1997? Conor Murray? Ben Youngs? Sorry, none of them come within a decent spin pass of the peerless Edwards, the most complete player of any generation let alone just as a scrum-half.
Edwards’ potential for greatness was evident from a young age. Spotted by Bill Samuel, who was to become a lifelong mentor, Edwards was an all-rounder, first at Pontardawe Grammar Technical School and then at Millfield School where his records in various track and field events were to stand for many years. Edwards was also an accomplished gymnast and Samuel made sure that the youngster used this multi-layered physical nurturing to good effect out on the rugby field. It was on Samuel’s prompting that Edwards settled on scrum-half even though he would have excelled at almost any position in the back-line, perhaps at flanker, too. Even though he was so naturally talent, Edwards was also a good student of the game, developing the spin pass after watching All Black, Chris Laidlaw. His kicking game also needed nurturing and broadening. Of course, it was Edwards’s partnership with Barry John that came to define the pair of them. ‘How do you want the ball?” asked Edwards of John on first meeting. “You throw it and I’ll catch it,” came the reply. That alliance was enough to do for the All Blacks in 1971 and then along came Phil Bennett to help achieve similar feats against the Springboks in 1974. Edwards was a constant, and without equal.
10 – Barry John
(Wales, 5 Lions caps, 1968, 1971)
As with Brian O’Driscoll and Jerry Guscott, so with Barry John and Phil Bennett, you opt for one over the other, write 300 words to fit the brief only to immediately change your mind. There are other No 10s worthy of consideration, be it Cliff Morgan in the 50s, Ireland’s Jackie Kyle before him or another from those parts, Ollie Campbell, while Jonny Wilkinson merits claim in any company. But The King it is, Barry John, a friend and soul-mate of George Best, kindred spirits in the vision as well as balance and nerve of their play. As Best would weave through a defence with the ball seemingly tied to his bootlaces so would John ghost through a defence as if the gap were obvious to all mankind and the invitation to pass through unmolested the easiest of manoeuvres.
John was targeted on the ’68 tour to South Africa, his tour cut short when his collar-bone was broken in a thunderous collision in the first test. John was not to be beaten, though, and by investing so much faith in his ability to succeed, coach Carwyn James concurred when and where it mattered most, out on the field of play where he was quickly to earn his soubriquet, The King. There was not a fault to be found in his game on that jaw-dropping tour to New Zealand in ’71 when the Lions changed the whole mindset of the Kiwi nation with the all-round excellence of their play, particularly in attack. John was the lynchpin: a magician with ball in hand, without fear when it came to expressing himself. But the boy from Cefneithin, at one with James his mentor from an early age, a musing West Walian, was also fully equipped to deal with all aspects of play. His kicking, from hand and at goal, was nigh on flawless as his haul of 188 points, a record for a British player on an overseas tour, illustrates. Even the New Zealanders were acclaiming The King by the end.
Barry John in action for the Lions against the All Blacks in 1971
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
12 – Mike Gibson
(Ireland, 12 Lions caps, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1974, 1977)
Gibson was ahead of his time in so many ways: in the judgement of his play, in his decision-making, in his multi-layered skill set that brought the best out of those around him across an international career that spanned 15 years in the emerald colours of Ireland and encompassed a record-equalling five tours for the Lions, although Gibson did not add to his tally of Test appearances on those last two trips.
The man in the no.12 shirt on those tours was one Ian McGeechan, a notable candidate in his own right, playing in all eight tests, albeit once as a replacement in the third test in Dunedin in 1977. McGeechan can be considered the most lauded Lion in history given his contribution on the field of play allied to his prodigious coaching shifts. The Yorkshire-born Scot certainly punched above his weight on so many fronts, not the biggest but, as with Gibson himself, a man with a rugby brain beyond the scope of mere mortals.
Gibson was also a fly-half and those lovely wily, dextrous skills, a blend of intellect and imagination, enabled him to perform with such aplomb on those Lions tours, particularly on the époque-shaping one to New Zealand in 1971. Gibson earned praise the length and breadth of the country which is quite some accomplishment given that Kiwis are so discerning or begrudging (take your pick) when it comes to dishing out compliments about anything let alone rugby matters. Gibson, though, epitomised the 1971 Lions, a side shaped in the image of their coach, Carwyn James, the poet-philosopher who also had a razor-sharp, hard-nosed rugby mind, one who delighted in the primacy of individual thought but who also recognised the responsibility to others within the team. It was a musketeer’s philosophy – one for all, and all for one. The Kiwis have never had time for show ponies and Gibson’s rare skill was always subjugated to the good of the group. He was a player’s player in that regard.
13 – Jeremy Guscott
(England, 8 Lions caps, 1989, 1993, 1997)
Or should it be Brian O’Driscoll? No sooner does the mind settle on O’Driscoll, from his youthful exuberance in Australia in 2001 to his captaincy under duress in New Zealand four years later and on to his valour against the Springboks before bringing the curtain down on a significant output for the Lions back where it started in Australia in 2013, then images of Jeremy Guscott on the glide come stirringly to mind. Oh, bugger. Which one to choose? But relegating O’Driscoll to the bench we must.
It is a close call, of course, but Guscott, the Prince of Centres, a man with such languid skills allied to a keen relish for the fray, was a compelling presence for the Lions. It is in the red Lions shirt that he truly excelled. As an individual, he was a sublime talent with pace and swerve and vision. The thing about such innately gifted individuals is that it is easy to miss what really makes them stand out – their competitiveness and will-to-win. Think Lionel Messi. Or Roger Federer. Whatever it takes for them to come out on top, they will find a way to that end. A flick of the head or a caress of the tennis racquet. They get across the line come what may.
And, in a Lions context, that is why Guscott shades the vote over O’Driscoll. There are more upbeat moments on his Lions CV, be it the swing of the boot that brought about the drop goal that won the series for the Lions against South Africa in 1997 or the try against the Wallabies as an international rookie in 1989. The Lions had lost the opening test and Guscott, who had only made his England debut a few weeks before the tourists headed Down Under, was drafted into the midfield. It was a bold selection and Guscott did not disappoint, repaying the faith of head coach, Ian McGeechan, with a dink-through try, a mark of genius. There is also second test victory over the All Blacks in 1993 to take into account before that Durban coup de grace four years later. It is not to say that O’Driscoll did not also have serious pretensions to the shirt, right from the moment of the Waltzing O’Driscoll try against Australia at the Gabba in 2001, the young Irishman slaloming through the Wallaby defence. But Guscott gets the nod.
11 – Tony O’Reilly
(Ireland, 10 Lions caps 1955, 1959)
Tony O’Reilly had it all: the class, the skill, the looks, the charm, the sense of fun and mischief, the commercial acumen, the high-roller lifestyle, the global entrepreneur, the media mogul – as Mrs Merton might say, tell me what first attracted you to the multi-millionaire Tony O’Reilly. Given his success in later life, it is easy to overlook just what a fine player O’Reilly was, tricky, clever and dead-eyed when the try-line came in sight as his ledger of account shows: 38 tries in all games on those two tours, six in ten tests, a strike rate that stands the test of time.
O’Reilly was a precocious talent, only 18 when selected for the Lions tour of South Africa in 1955. He turned the youthful promise that had been seen for Ireland, the strong vigorous running, and translated it into stirring deeds in the red of the British and Irish Lions. Even the locals warmed to him, for the directness of his play as well as the relish with which he threw himself into every situation, on and off the field. His try-scoring records for the Lions were acclaimed round the rugby world, prodigious feats, never mind achieved by one so young. O’Reilly scored one and made another for back-row colleague, Jim Greenwood, in the knife-edge first test in Johannesburg that was won by the Lions, 23-22. For some strange reason known only to the selectors, O’Reilly, was chosen out of position at centre for the fourth and final test yet still managed to score what turned out to be the final try of the trip in a 22-8 loss for the Lions as the Springboks saved face to square the series. There were six tests on the combined tour to Australia and New Zealand four years later and O’Reilly played true to reputation in scoring in four of them. There are other candidates for this left slot, JJ Williams, Rory Underwood, Ieuan Evans but O’Reilly trumps them all.
14 – Gerald Davies
(Wales, five Lions caps, 1968 and 1971)
Even in his mid-seventies were you to meet him in the street you would not bet against Gerald Davies sending you the wrong way as he sidestepped you in the tightest of spaces. There has never been a more elegant wing three-quarter, with his shirt collar high and body balanced, poised and potent in equal measure, ever alert, ever willing. His sidestep was a thing of beauty, a study in geometry as much as it was in poetics, precisely choreographed, the lean, the feint, the deception, the speed, the flair, the imagination, all executed to devilish effect.
Originally a centre until switched to the wing by Clive Rowlands on the Wales tour to Australia and New Zealand, Davies brought with him an awareness of possibility that is the hallmark of all great players, the courage not to play to rote but to see opportunity where others only see danger. Given the calibre of player inside him during those glory years for Welsh rugby, Davies did not have much need to go looking for work elsewhere on the field but such was the sharpness of his antennae that he would pop up anywhere along the back line, creating havoc and making sure that his switchback running maximised chances for those around him.
Davies scored as well as created as his tally of 20 tries in 46 appearances indicates, famously touching down against Scotland in the last minute at Murrayfield enabling flanker John Taylor to seal the win with a famous touchline conversion. There was no doubting his potency on the Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971, a bewitching presence in a back line that transfixed the likes of TV spectators such as future Lions coaches, Kiwis Graham Henry and Warren Gatland, neither of whom had ever seen rugby played in such a scintillating, clinical fashion.
Gerald Davies in action during the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
15 – JPR Williams
(Wales, eight Lions caps, 1971 and 1974)
The sideburns alone could strike the fear of God into you, great bushy adornments that came to symbolise a rare physical specimen, full of natural vim and ferocity. Williams became more familiarly known by his initials, JPR, when another John Williams, a wing, appeared on the Wales scene.
JPR is best remembered for his fierce presence at the rear, a last line of resistance that was so rarely breached in a one-on-one situation as Jean-Francois Gourdon discovered in 1976. The France wing was on the point of touching down for the try that would have sealed a Grand Slam only to end up in the front row of the stands courtesy of Williams’ shoulder. Yet Williams was also a fine attacking player, a trend-setter in the wake of a relaxation of the laws in the late sixties that restricted direct kicking into touch, as fearless in his forays upfield as he was when scrambling in defence.
JPR was an ever-present across those two Lions-defining tours to New Zealand in ’71 and South Africa three years later, helping to clinch the series against the All Blacks with an improbable 45 metre drop goal in the fourth test in Auckland.
Williams was an exceptionally talented all-rounder, a winner of Junior Wimbledon as well as one who had a long career in medicine. JPR played 11 times against England and never lost. Who else to challenge him for the no.15 Lions shirt? A couple of stand-out Scots in Andy Irvine and Gavin Hastings while the unique talents of Jason Robinson have obvious match-winner’s merit. But JPR sees off all-comers, for his pluck, spark and skill.
Head coach: Sir Ian McGeechan
(1989, 1993, 1997, 2009, assistant 2005)
The keyboard finger did hover for a long time over the name of Carwyn James, the philosopher-poet whose spirit and insights did so much to inspire the 1971 Lions to such great heights in New Zealand, a landmark tour in that it was their first series victory, lending the cause viability. That tour has been a reference point ever since, a template for how skill and esprit de corps can achieve so much if given licence to play. Three years later the tourists accomplished even more in sweeping all before them, winning 21 consecutive games on tour and only being denied a Slam in the test series by a contentious decision in the final match. Ian McGeechan experienced that at close quarters, an ever-present in the centre and again in New Zealand three years afterwards. More than any other man, McGeechan knows what makes a Lions party tick, knows how to get the best from a diverse group, how to turn rivals into allies, how not to overload with detail but how to create just the right tactical framework and how to push all the right emotional buttons.
Even now, all these years later, the hairs on the back of the neck still stand up when hearing Geech just speak about the Lions. If that is true for a mere observer, imagine what it felt like for players, ‘the test match animals,’ as McGeechan would refer to them all. The Scot had terrific success in his first three tours, coming back from an opening test loss in Australia in ’89 to win the series, taking the All Blacks all the way in 1993 before putting one over on the world champion Springboks.
The Lions lost their way thereafter, first under Graham Henry and then Clive Woodward. McGeechan, with manager and decorated Lions wing, Gerald Davies, restored the ethos as well as credibility of the Lions in that nerve-shredding, rib-crunching series in South Africa in 2009. Warren Gatland was on that tour as forwards coach, absorbing so much from his mentor. Gatland is the modern-day McGeechan as he approaches his third tour in charge. McGeechan has paved the way for the enduring appeal of the Lions.