Building the Lions' den
May 13, 2013
Warren Gatland met 36 of his Lions on Monday - now he has to turn them into a winning side © Getty Images
For some, it was an experience similar to their first day at school. On Monday, with Brian O'Driscoll absent due to his back injury, 36 of the 37 players charged with bringing a series victory back from Australia for the British & Irish Lions met for the first time as one at the Duke of Northumberland's stunning suburban pile - Syon House. It was a mansion littered with statues and priceless furniture - but it was also a place of business.
Much of the talk before Warren Gatland's 10am press briefing was the difficult and limited schedule the Lions have in store. With Leinster, Ulster, Leicester and Northampton still fighting for silverware, just 22 of the 37 players will remain with Gatland and his team over the next week, which will see them switch to a training base near Cardiff and then over to Ireland. They then all meet on May 26 before flying to Hong Kong on May 27.
It is far from ideal for Gatland, who admitted that if he had it his way the entire squad would have had two weeks together prior to flying out. But the schedule is set in stone, this is no time for whingeing and Gatland is fully aware of this. While he addressed the press, under the watchful eye of a statue of Greek God Apollo, the players were greeting each other in a nearby hotel.
It was a day of logistics; players had to sort visas, get measured up for kit and were also handed their pre-tour itinerary. Gatland's backroom staff also put the players through medical checks to determine where each of them are in relation to their first match on June 1 against the Barbarians in Hong Kong. Before that, they will have the inevitable wave of sponsor and media commitments; But the goal at the end of the whole experience is simple, they are eyeing that elusive series win.
For Adam Jones, who played against the Springboks back in 2009, it was a familiar feeling welcoming those who he had faced on the field as a team-mate - by his own admission, it is a moment pre-conceived ideas and perceptions go out the window.
And once they meet, then comes the all-important squad bonding. For Jones, in his affable style, beer is the best way to achieve this, though he admits this could be slightly different to Sam Warburton's outlook. The hugely experienced and genial Welsh prop offered a memory of one of the first gatherings of the 2009 vintage where Riki Flutey and Andrew Sheridan led the rest of the beer-fuelled squad with their guitars while the others sang along. And they travelled to South Africa infinitely more familiar with each other than when they first met.
© Getty Images
For those on the first Lions tour, such as Richie Gray or Cian Healy, they admitted it was a bit nerve-wracking walking into a room and seeing familiar faces of those who they have done their best to get one over in the past. Gray will now be flung straight into the Lions touring mentality but Healy has just 24 hours with the rest of the party before returning to Leinster to focus on Friday's Amlin Challenge Cup game against Biarritz.
"It's a bit strange coming over for a day where you fully embrace it," Healy admitted. "But I have been trying to push it out of my head to focus on Leinster so it will be weird to separate it tomorrow."
When speaking to a few of the players on Monday, there was a pervading. sense of expectation and leaping into the unknown. For those who still had club commitments, however, there was also a reluctance to focus too far into the future and even mention the June 1 match with the Baabaas or the June 5 contest against the Western Force. They still have unfinished business on the domestic front.
It will be a difficult hurdle for Gatland to overcome - he will be facing a Barbarians team in the unfamiliar position of having had more time together as a squad than the team they face - but Monday was a day of excitement. The 36 players were strolling around proudly in their new Lions tracksuit.
Just 22 players will remain on Lions duty now and for them, the realisation that they are one of the select few will now kick in - just as the hard work does too.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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