Twelve years ago I took the Lions to Australia. It was a great honour and a privilege, but looking back on it now I realise that I wasn’t ready. I thought it was as simple as picking the best players and getting them to do the job. But I was wrong. Character is a huge part of the success of a Lions tour.
You need men who will back the test team. Back in 2001 I thought the management would be able to handle individual egos, but it didn’t work out that way. As I explain in my book ‘Final Word’, some of the players who weren’t in the test team caused a great deal of trouble for everyone.
If I had that time over again, I would pick my best 23 players regardless of character, and the remaining 13 would need to balance the personality of the group.
Things can change. In 2001 I was happy with my best players. I had talked to Ian McGeechan who was very positive about Martin Johnson’s abilities as a captain. He had stature and presence. And he turned out to be a hell of a captain. I enjoyed working with him. He had the respect of the players.
But problems arose because of the amount of injuries we had and the character of some of the fringe players. I had naively assumed that all the players would understand the Lions concept and put the team first. That wasn’t always the case with certain individuals.
I picked solely on talent. I don’t expect Gatland to make the same mistake. He has far more experience than I had. He has coached Ireland, Wales, Wasps, Grand Slams and he has a marvellous record.
In all likelihood he will pick his best 23 and then look very seriously at the rest of the tour party in terms of personality and character. He will want players who can help out the test team even when they know they won’t be playing.
There will be a crisis or two on a Lions tour there always is. In 2001 we took Lawrence Dallaglio, a world class player, because the medical opinion said his knee would heal in time. He lasted one game. We lost Richard Hill before halftime of the second test. Dan Luger went on tour as the form winger with Jason Robinson and didn’t play a game. Hooker Phil Greening broke his leg before the first game.
Things will go wrong. Four years later there was all the fall-out around Brian O’Driscoll. It is how you handle these things that matter. At the last World Cup the All Blacks lost Dan Carter and two other first fives. Our captain had a broken bone in his foot. But you can’t let these things interfere. They can’t become an excuse for not winning.
You have to stay together and support each other when the bad stuff happens, because one thing is certain – bad stuff will happen. That’s why the character of the ‘dirt trackers’ is as important as the talent of the test team. That’s why Warren Gatalnd will want good men as well as good players.