Lions must embrace the spirit of '71

What can the 2017 Lions learn from the class of 1971? In reality very little about tactics and the way to play New Zealand — the game has changed so much in the last 46 years it is scarcely recognisable.

We might have been able to teach them a thing or two about passing — few modern players are as adept as the ’71 backs at moving the ball quickly — but everything else is very different.

The main legacy that stands the test of time is the culture of the Lions. If they can embrace that as we did it will definitely give them a better chance of beating the All Blacks. I am sure that is one thing John Spencer, the manager who was also on that tour, will want to foster.

It will not be easy — time is against them. We were in New Zealand for over three months and played 26 games. That allowed the players not just to get to know each other but to form real lasting friendships — there is still a bond that comes from knowing we achieved something very special whenever we meet.

We had time to learn real respect for our rivals from the other three countries, to foster those intangible ties that transform a group of talented players who have been thrown together into a genuine team.

There were 13 games before the first Test so there was adequate time to work on combinations, to discover the strengths and occasional weaknesses of players we knew of but little in depth — video analysis was still in the future. These Lions have no such luxury, they will have just six games before they face-off against New Zealand.

I was lucky enough to go on two Lions tours and on both of them there was a mantra — every player would get the chance to challenge for a Test place. It was hugely important because it kept everybody on board and that in itself boosted morale. With 41 players and so few matches that simply cannot happen this time round.

Sir Clive Woodward tried to be super scientific when he was coach of the last lions to travel to New Zealand in 2005. You could almost have bet that he would try to reinvent the wheel and split the party in two – a Test squad and a mid-week second team. They even had separate coaching teams with Sir Ian McGeechan taking charge of the back-up players. The ‘elite’ players did not even travel to most of the mid-week games.

It was, predictably, a complete disaster — so divisive that the discards formed their own club and ordered tee-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘Midweek Marvels’ which were worn with provocative pride when they rejoined the main group for the Saturday fixtures.

There have been attempts to gloss over it recently but that tour cannot lose the tag of being the worst tour in the history ‘Blackwash: The inside story of the worst Lions tour ever’ was the headline in the Sunday Times only a week ago. Significantly, McGeechan could not resist pointing out in his latest book that his team, the Midweek XV, were unbeaten.

Unsurprisingly, he reverted to the Lions being a genuine touring team — travelling, practising, celebrating and drowning their sorrows together — when he was asked to be head coach for the second time in South Africa in 2009. Having been on both tours I can say first hand that the difference in the feel of the two camps was palpable.

In 1971 we were always aware of the competition for Test places and, although it was obvious certain players would not get a look-in barring injury, it was healthy and kept everybody on their toes.

Regulars in the midweek XV referred to themselves as members of the T & Ws [Tuesdays and Wednesdays] and Bob Hiller, who scored more than 100 points on two tours but never played a Test — Tom Kiernan was captain in 1968 and JPR was the first name on the team sheet in 1971 — even wrote a note of apology to his mates when JPR was injured and he had to play on a Saturday. But it was all in fun, there was no seething undercurrent of discontent.

It was, in fact the opposite. The work the non-Test players put in during practice to support those of us involved in the actual game made a massive contribution to winning the series.

That is Gatland’s biggest challenge. The team for the first game has been selected only from players who were not in action last weekend. I understand why but I fear it will compromise the Lions’ chances even more because they need to work on new combinations.

“A convincing win over the Provincial XV in Whangarei is absolutely essential in building confidence and team spirit. This first match will set the tone for the whole tour.”

In ’71 I had my club and country No. 8, Mervyn Davies, beside me — we actually shared a flat in London and knew each other inside out — but having Peter Dixon or Derek Quinnell on the blindside instead of Dai Morris required some serious readjustment. Nurturing those new combinations should be his priority.

Sure, we have to be mindful of player welfare but time is even more precious. I would definitely have played something close to a Test team. A convincing win over the Provincial XV in Whangarei is an absolute essential element in building confidence and team spirit. This first match will set the tone for the whole tour.

Now I cannot see a shadow Test team taking the field until the following weekend which means they will have just one more game to consolidate or tweak those all important combinations.

Our tour was tough in the sense that we were coming off the back of a long season and then had to continue playing — in my case I think it was another 14 matches. The squad was limited’s to 30 and there was no question of coming off after an hour because replacements were only allowed for injuries [certified by the home doctor].

But I believe this tour is an even bigger ask. There is never an easy game in New Zealand. If they start well playing four of the Super Rugby Provinces before the first Test could be an advantage — if it goes wrong it could go very wrong.

They just cannot let that happen. In ’71 we developed a ‘never say die’ culture — we would not bow whatever they threw at us. The 2017 Lions have to do the same.