Conor Murray, Owen Farrell and Stuart Hogg celebrate after winning the first test
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Not too long ago this Lions trip to South Africa was being billed as the tour from hell. And for good reason.
All the trappings that make a Lions tour so memorable and so special – the presence of family and friends, the red army, the nights out on the town, the excursions – were all absent. In its place were a grim litany of Covid protocols, which were a large contributory factor in England’s Six Nations implosion. With the Lions confined to a single training base for four weeks, this seemed a sure-fire breeding ground for claustrophobia and cynicism.
Instead, the overwhelming impression emanating from their camp in Hermanus has been one of unexpected, raucous fun. The fines committee, led by Mako Vunipola with Bundee Aki acting as his enforcer, were in full force on Saturday night after the first Test victory. The court session was so vicious that certain Texan judges would consider it a touch harsh. If you spot a rogue haircut in the second Test you will know where it came from.
Even head coach Warren Gatland was not spared. “I got fined initially and you have 20 seconds to give your account of what happened,” Gatland said. “The first one was having a beer in the changing rooms and I said that I did not want to be rude because a beer was offered to me by the South Africans so they let me off. The second fine was introducing a dummy lineout during the captain’s run so I had to roll the dice for that.”
Not that Gatland acts without malice in these matters. On Thursday night, the Lions staged a quiz night with Huw Bennett, the strength and conditioning coach, acting as question-master. One of the rounds threw up some nine-year-old tweets from the Lions social media manager, Nick Morris, that were none too complimentary of Gatland.
“I knew it was coming, it didn’t bother me, I just laughed and got up and said, ‘whoever made that tweet is on the effing plane tomorrow so pack your bags….’ Gatland said. “He was mortified for the next hour.”
Warren Gatland has created a cohesive atmosphere in the Lions camp
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Court sessions, quizzes, rounds of golf and the coffee mornings run by Jamie George and Elliot Daly – who estimates he serves 40 a day – may seem trivial trappings to the the success of a Lions tour against the world champions but they serve a vital function in keeping spirits high. Contrary to expectations, the lack of room-sharing and day trips have meant the squad have grown closer as wing Anthony Watson attests.
“In terms of the tightness of the group, I do feel that this tour is better than the last one,” Watson said. “I feel very close with pretty much everyone in the squad, which I can’t say I did last time. That might be because I was younger and a bit more shy. All the lads here are genuinely class. I feel I get on with everyone. I don’t know if they will say the same about me, but that’s how I feel.”
Still there always comes a critical moment in a Lions tour when the Test 23 is chosen and resentment can start festering. Past Lions tours to Australia in 2001 and New Zealand in 1993 have been derailed by players going “off tour”. There’s still time for that to happen on this tour – although quite where they would go is another question – but Gatland has been at pains to highlight the contribution of the wider squad.
He deliberately allowed them to vent their frustrations in a full-bore double training session against the Test XV last Tuesday and allowed them to have drinks that night, although the players imposed their own midnight curfew. It was noticeable that the wider Lions squad were involved in the warm-up at the Cape Town Stadium while the non-playing members of the Springboks’ squad were in the stands.
“We’ve bonded incredibly well, the players have just been amazing but the vocal stuff coming from the non-23 in the stands made a big difference,” Gatland said. “Before the game I said to the 23, it’s a great honour, you’re playing for yourselves and your family but also the whole squad. You’ve got a real responsibility to do it for everyone.
“I’m incredibly impressed with how tight these guys are. In the past, possibly when it comes to Test week, you probably get two or three whose tour is over and they probably haven’t had the same sort of focus. At the moment everyone’s on the same page and this group of guys have been absolutely brilliant. The message to the players was that it’s not about the 15 or the 23, it’s about the whole group. Going back to the UK and Ireland and saying they were part of a winning Lions Test series. Not everyone can be selected but everyone can be proud of that fact.”