In 1997, coming up 28 years of age, I bagged probably one of the best jobs in sport, ever, and given how things panned out, maybe THE best job in sport, ever.
Word inside the sports industry was that this was possibly going to be the last ever Lions Tour. It wasn’t commercially attractive enough. They hadn’t won a Series for 23 years. The Lions were headed down the same slope as the BaBaas.
Extraordinary to think that now that the Lions is a global rugby juggernaut brand which more than any other team captures and personifies fan passion. 1997 was the pivot and as they set off it really seemed a daunting task ahead of them.
Lions come from different countries. Huge rivals for 46 months out of 48, they then come together to forge a single red unit against a seemingly impregnable foe. There were factions, in that the Welsh always seemed to like sticking together and everyone else seemed happy with that, but to a man they are Lions and that means two things; represent the Lions on and off the pitch as players and tourists, and win.
“ To me, those two things defined the culture of 1997. They weren’t just any team, they were the Lions and carried huge support amongst the African communities in South Africa.”
Hell, SARFU leant the team their press officer as a secondment and he turned up at the First Test in a Lions op! But above all else, they are not there to lose, draw or go down gallantly. The ’97 Lions were there to win. Never a step backwards. And yes, they bought the ’99 call with them, should it have ever been needed. That was the mentality. All in. To a man.
Leadership and Teamship were therefore central to the Lions Touring Party and in 1997 I was able to witness first hand how that emerged and evolved.
Fran Cotton, a Lion of 1974 and a quietly spoken man mountain of a prop was the Tour Manager. Cotton was unflappable He’d been there and done it as a player and as a businessman. He wore glasses and didn’t shout but you definitely wouldn’t ever want to spill his pint. He had been in the front row of Willie John’s Lions. Never a step backwards. Never mess with Fran Cotton. On any issue.
Ian McGeechan, before he became Sir, was head coach. Another Lion of ’74. An urbane, softly spoken Scotsman. He epitomised the heart and spirit of a Lion. His Test Day speech has made grown men weep. He too had been there and done it and you knew when he spoke that the words coming out of his mouth were from one of the greatest rugby coaching minds alive.
The true spirit of the ’97 Lions though was forged on the scrummaging machine and the brutal, constant demands of Lions Forwards Coach, Jim Telfer. Twice a Lion, made out of Scottish granite and bad weather his two speeches – the Honest Player and Everest make Al Pacino’s speech from Any Given Sunday sound like a nursery class lesson. And Telfer’s were real.
But that was the war zone. A smaller pack smashing up the mighty Springbok pack. That’s where it had to happen. And that is where a man who literally said nothing, Scotsman Tom Smith, a small prop, ousted the most experienced Lion on tour, Jason Leonard, to book his place to take on a freak of Afrikaner genetics, Os du Randt. Os; even his name sounds scary. In reality he was like watching a mountain walk.
All of this focused on a 27-year old Englishman who the senior management had rightly placed in the Willie John Macbride mould and made captain for the Series; Martin Johnson. Johnson’s leadership seemed to be of uncompromising toughness. He would be there first. He would not falter. Whatever the injuries and pain he felt he was there standing in the middle of it all.
The composite elements of the above, together with that red Lions thread that spun all the way back to 1974 created a very special group.
It was very planned. Very clever. Very deliberate. And it was the winning formula. And in the end it was Jerry Guscott, the only black player on the field, who sealed it with his boot dropping a goal through the posts at Durban against a sea of red in the stands and, it seemed, all the odds.
Who says sport isn’t poetic?