Coaching guru Ian McGeechan has promised to restore the traditional spirit of the British and Irish Lions when he takes them on tour to South Africa next year.
The 61-year-old, appointed on Wednesday as Lions coach for the fourth time, promised lessons would be learned from the ill-fated 2005 tour, when the cream of Home Unions rugby were thrashed 3-0 in a Test series by New Zealand.
Under England World Cup-winning supremo Sir Clive Woodward, the Lions used 51 players and two separate coaching units three years ago.
Most damagingly of all, players in the midweek side felt they had little chance of being considered for the Tests because Woodward appeared to have such a preconceived idea of his 1st XV.
McGeechan and fellow former Lions players Andy Irvine and Gerald Davies, now chairman and tour manager respectively, are determined that all players have a fair chance of making the Test team next year.
Meanwhile McGeechan himself plans to take a squad of just 35 to South Africa with just one coaching group of four or five specialists to help prepare the side to face the world champions.
“When I spoke to the Lions committee they asked me what my principles are and how I see a tour running,” said McGeechan, who coached the Lions on their victorious tour of South Africa in 1997.
“The Lions have always been so important to me. The Lions are special and unique. You can’t compare them to anything else you do as a British and Irish coach or player.
“I have a very strong philosophy and some of the traditions are so important to making sure the Lions have a fighting chance of succeeding.
“I firmly believe you need a very tight group. We will have one coaching team and one group of players,” he said.
He said: “You have to understand each other and that process is often accelerated if players share rooms because they get to know each other that much better, that much quicker.
“In 2005 I thought there were a lot of players in British and Irish rugby just coming off their peak. Now we have a lot of players coming towards their peak. It is exciting.”
McGeechan, a former Scotland back, played all four Tests on the Lions’ unbeaten tour of South Africa in 1974 and made four more Test appearances in New Zealand three years later.
He coached the Lions to series victories over Australia in 1989 and eight years later in South Africa but then lost twice against New Zealand, as head coach in 1993 and assistant in 2005.
However, three years ago McGeechan’s midweek team were unbeaten.
“I enjoyed the group of players I was working with in 2005 and we did go out for a pint midweek when everybody else had disappeared. Maybe in 2009 we will go out for a pint as a whole group,” he laughed.
But McGeechan will have just six matches before the first Test to unearth hidden gems such as props Paul Wallace and Tom Smith, as well as second row Jeremy Davidson.