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Graham Jenkins
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Graham Jenkins is a former senior editor of ESPNscrum
British & Irish Lions
Lions ready to roar - and smile
Graham Jenkins
May 19, 2009
Lions head coach Ian McGeechan talks to the media following the announcement of 2009 British & Irish Lions, Heathrow, England, April 21, 2009
Lions head coach Ian McGeechan has emphasised the importance of traditional values on the eve of the tour to South Africa © Getty Images
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British & Irish Lions head coach Ian McGeechan insists half the battle during this summer's tour of South Africa will be waged off the field as he tries to conjure a winning team spirit.

McGeechan, a veteran of six previous tours - two as player and four as a coach, welcomed his latest squad to their luxury Surrey base on Monday ahead of a taxing tour. And as the class of 2009 gathered around him for a week of intense preparation before their departure, he was quick to stress the need for them to bond both on and off the field with time working against them.

"This is the shortest tour and the quickest time into the 1st Test - four weeks on Saturday we are playing the 1st Test," the head coach explained. "So everything we do is about trying to get in the right shape and part of that is getting to know each other as group but the other part is getting to know how we want to play and what we want to do and that's going to be a strong part of this week."

As another gruelling domestic campaign comes to a close, McGeechan is also aware of not over-working his players as they build for their 10-match trip that will culminate with a three-Test series against the Springboks.

"We've got to be very clever about the way we train, when you come to big games, big tournaments, and there isn't anything bigger than this, you play and you coach smart," he said hinting that the Lions involved in this weekend's Heineken Cup Final clash between Leicester and Leinster will sit out the first two tour games. "I think that applies to every one of us through this preparation and the early games. But we have to find our own game and we have to be comfortable in what we are trying to do.

"We can't get over-complicated; we've got to be able to understand what we want to do. The principles we want to play by, both strategically and tactically, have to be clear so everyone can understand it and follow it.

"I think the most important thing is to give the players a platform to play from which we can see their talents and I'm very keen that these players have the confidence and encouragement from us as coaches to be able to show what they can do and bring their strengths to the Lions shirt."

McGeechan was in charge of the 1997 Lions that tasted success in South Africa and has seen the elite tourists' brand grow over the last 12 years to the point where 30,000 fans are expected to follow them this summer and their replica shirts will out-sell the likes of football teams Real Madrid and Chelsea.

But while the Lions may have set a new mark in terms of commercial success in recent years, McGeechan insists the core values remain the same.

"This is still a group of players who want to achieve in a Lions jersey. You can be professional or amateur but that is the tradition, that is the experience they want as much as anybody over the last five decades. That is the bit that doesn't change."

In recent years we've seen the Lions take up instruments, tackle assault courses and even learn the instantly forgettable 'Power of Four' anthem in a bid to forge winning relationships and this tour will be no different.

"We have an activity day on Thursday. We are going sailing on the Solent. It is a challenge but it is practical. The biggest thing is to give the players an opportunity to get know each other," said McGeechan.

"We are sharing rooms, we are doing things together. Those are the things that just accelerate the understanding, where you get to know each other as a room-mate not just a team mate.

"We will be finishing this week with a barbecue and a beer because the best way to get to know someone is over a quiet drink in a less formal environment. The social bit is important. When 90% of the tour is off the field that will impact on where we can get to as a group of people.

Above everything, McGeechan and tour manager Gerald Davies are determined to make sure that all the players enjoy the experience of being a Lion.

"It's very important to Gerald and myself that they do that," said McGeechan. "All we can do is give the players the environment and the opportunity and if we achieve that then the players will think it's been worthwhile, they will have enjoyed it and we might have been successful."

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