Secrets of success
Sir Ian McGeechan tells skysports.com what the British and Irish Lions have to do to win their first series since 1997
By Julian Crabtree
Last Updated: 16/05/13 1:37pm
As a player Sir Ian McGeechan toured with the British and Irish Lions twice - winning in South Africa in 1974 and losing to New Zealand in 1977. He went on the coach the Lions four times, winning in Australia in 1989 and South Africa in 1997 as well as taking them to New Zealand in 1983 and back to South Africa in 2009. He was also assistant to Sir Clive Woodward during the 2005 trip to New Zealand.
"Go with an open mind is the best advice I could give the management and the players," said McGeechan.
"The biggest lesson I learned coaching was not to go into it piecemeal and trying to prepare for every team you play. Prepare for a Test match and on the way if you are getting it right, then the provincial matches will take care of themselves. Use those as a five weeks preparation programme to test it out. Everyone is part of that - even though you are not putting the same team out, the message and tactical approach is evolving.
"By the time you get to Test week and picked your Test team, everyone is on the same level. You have to give everyone a chance to start and a chance to stake that claim for a Test jersey. There will be a few names pencilled in but it's about your combinations - looking how players react and play with each other. You have an idea but you need to get that feel.
"The thing we got wrong selection wise in that first Test four years ago against was because we had not played against some of the best South African front fives and we went in with a lightweight front five.
"I should have known better and I said to Gats (Gatland was McGeechan's forwards coach in 2009) that he should have known better because we had both coached Simon Shaw and should have had him in from the start. He is a Test match animal, he is skilful, big and I thought he was incredible in the two Test matches that he did play - he was outstanding."
Looking towards Australia, McGeechan believes that is at the set-piece where the British and Irish Lions can really excel in and put the Wallabies on the back foot - and he is not talking about the scrum.
"Australia are not the terrible scrummagers that the media would have the fans to believes," he said.
"I also think that because reffing the scrums is so dysfunctional, you cannot guarantee yourself getting a platform there even if you have a dominant pack. That will not be the main attacking platform - use it as a place to play way from, and use your lineout as your power platform.
"At the lineout you are in complete and utter control of what you do so it makes sense to run your power plays off this. The lineout will be key to how well the Lions do.
"That is why Gatland has gone for props who are technically less efficient but more dynamic in the phase of play. Why go for anything else if you are not allowed to dominate that area of play?
"So we get the best front five carriers that we can, we will then powerhouse Australia with strong powerful runners. We'll have a backrow and a front five who are really strong in that area, a steady midfield and lighting quick back three. What you have then is a game where you can actually start to play around with where you bring your runners in - either your quick men or the power men.
"So the Aussie press who are just calling the Lions slabs of meat - well they are not looking very carefully at them."
McGeechan's incredible journey with the Lions stretches back to 1974 when he first went on tour with the best of British and Irish to South Africa. And it is the experiences of that tour that helped him coach the Lions in the future.
"When I knew the Lions was different was in the third Test in 1974," he said.
"Gary Player had given the team talk to the Boks and it was fair to say that they were fairly well wound up before they got on the field. They had lost the first two Tests and were not about to lose a series.
"It was 38 minutes of the most physical rugby I have ever played in. We did not get out of our half. We could not have won the game in those 38 minutes but we could have lost it. We ended up winning a penalty with a minute to go to half time. We kicked in to the corner, Gordon Brown stole the lineout and scored - we had been absolutely pummelled but had somehow weathered it and gone ahead.
"I remember looking around at my team-mates and just knowing that we all had a job to do, and when we had done that job then we had another one because the Springboks were going to keep on coming for us. They had nine forwards that day - they picked a No.8 scrum-half. It was the most physical intimidating environment I can ever recall. It was the biggest game I have ever played in my life.
"The second half it broke up a bit and we scored two more tires - we took the ball away from the forwards and used our backline to get the ball out wide to our wingers
"To go from 'we are going to lose this game' to 'this is how we win it' was incredible. That feeling after the game was the best feeling I have ever had."
Some 23 years later McGeechan was in charge in Durban where the Lions were taking a battering from a wounded Springbok side who had already lost the first Test. The ashen faced South African public were baying for blood and demanding that the current world champs bounced back and restored order to world rugby.
"It was a feeling of deja vu," remembers the 66-year-old. "At half-time I told them I had been in that position before. We had talked about not feeling sorry for ourselves just because we could not get our game going. We had to stick in there because the opportunities would come. That first half was incredible though but they held on and finally when the chances came they took them and clinched the series.
"People ask me what my finest moments were - as a player it was that third in 1974; as a coach it was that final whistle in Durban. Jim [Telfer] and I sat in the stands surrounded by Afrikaners. I had to get him out because he started to have a conversation that I cannot repeat with someone behind him."
Understanding what the Lions are all about is vital for a successful tour, but there are many other elements involved including working out your opponents weaknesses.
"In 1997 we thought the Springbok front five were too big and that moving them around was the key," said McGeechan.
"Wherever they weren't, that is where we would play. So every Lions player knew that wherever there front five were, we were taking the ball away from there. In 1997 we also knew that they came at you very hard and try and smash you. So we had this one-plus-one tactic. There was a player behind another all the time. The player who was going to hit the line was moving very late and taking the ball off the player standing closer to the line. We had two runners who were always on the shoulder. So if the ball carrier was going for one shoulder, then the support runner was going for the other. Without looking the ball carrier would pop the pass up and leave the ball knowing that someone else would be there. We did the same drills for 7 weeks.
"In 2009 we looked at home South Africa defended too, we looked to play off the midfield with our backrow - running off the shoulder left and right to give the ball carrier options. That first Test - although we got a lot of things wrong we made eight line breaks in the first 40 minutes because defensively they did not know where we were coming from and we probably should have scored three tries.
"The point I am trying to make is, see what is in front of you and react to that. Trust your key principles and if you get those right then that is when you can really start playing."
Australia will not be pushovers and McGeechan is well aware that they are masters of the type of game that Gatland will want to play. However he believes the strength in depth and the spirit of the Lions will be the difference.
"Down in Australia they are hard to beat, they are a clever side and are extremely difficult to break down - even if you do have superiority. There first 18-19 players are very, very good but if they start getting some injuries then they don't quite have the depth of New Zealand or Australia.
"Another key factor for the Lions is that more than three-quarters of the support staff is the same as 09 which is important for some continuity. They are not starting from scratch; they have some foundations from 2009 as to what worked and what didn't. There is a template there for them to build on which means they are a lot further down the line preparation wise.
"Yes there are some new players in the squad, so there is a big responsibility on those guys from 09 to share what that Lions jersey means to them. Knowledge is power, and they need to share that knowledge."
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