The Lions' Keepers
December 12, 2012
Sir Ian McGeechan salutes supporters at the end of his fourth and final Lions tour as a coach in 2009 © Getty Images
For fifty years the word "coach" did not enter the Lions lexicon.
The early tours between 1888 and 1938 were headed by a manager and his assistant, with a tour captain to lead the side in the field. The manager was invariably a worthy from rugby's administrative ranks, a headmaster figure to hold his young charges in check, with the assistant acting as a secretary to keep on top of the paperwork and tour logistics. The captain was chosen more for his ability to make after-dinner speeches than for his qualities of leadership on the field.
Change happened slowly. The first post-war Lions were the class of 1950 who toured New Zealand and Australia under the captaincy of Karl Mullen, the hooker whose tactical nous had steered Ireland to back-to-back Triple Crowns in the 1948 and 1949 Five Nations. Mullen's party was the first all-international squad to leave these shores and the first to take an interest in what was quaintly called "preparation". Mullen took responsibility for drilling the forwards while Bleddyn Williams, his vice-captain, supervised the backs.
A similar unofficial role was filled for the 1955 Lions by Jeff Butterfield, the Northampton and England centre. He was a Loughborough P.E. graduate and star performer for a side that shared the Test series with the Springboks. He concentrated on conditioning and no better tribute was paid to his efforts than by Tom Reid, the big Irish forward who later confessed that he had never been as physically fit in his entire life than on that tour.
Butterfield performed the same role with the 1959 side in New Zealand where skipper Ronnie Dawson strived to get his forwards working as a unit. Great strides in coaching were taking place in South Africa and New Zealand by these times and after the failures of the 1962 Lions in South Africa, where manager Brian Vaughan mucked in preparing the team with captain Arthur Smith and senior player Dickie Jeeps, the Home Unions began seriously considering the advantages of coaching at the highest level.
For the 1966 tour to Australia and New Zealand, a break with tradition was finally made with the appointment as "assistant manager" of John Robins, a respected lecturer at Loughborough who had played in Welsh Grand Slam sides in the early fifties and toured with Karl Mullen's Lions. Robins was in the vanguard of the coaching revolution in the Home Unions and he was specifically detailed to carry out such duties on tour.
Mike Campbell-Lamerton was the controversial choice as captain of that team. The big Scot was a popular man, an old-school skipper chosen by the Four Home Unions Tour committee for his abilities to lead off the field. He had been a Lion in 1962 and saw his role as continuing the age-old Lions tradition. As a result, Robins was sidelined for most of the visit and never really had a chance to impose any tactical plan on the side. Campbell-Lamerton's loss of form on tour led to his being dropped from a Test side that was the first to suffer a complete whitewash in a Lions Test series.
David Brooks was determined that no such confusion about roles should arise in 1968 when he managed the side that toured South Africa. His coach as assistant manager was the former Lions and Ireland captain Ronnie Dawson, who had taken a studious interest in coaching since retiring from the Test scene four years earlier. Home Unions rugby was not at its strongest, but through his thorough research of the opposition and by making good use of experienced players like Syd Millar and Jim Telfer - two future Lions coaches - Dawson shaped an unpromising side into a tight outfit that gave the 'Boks a run for their money in the first three Tests of the four-game rubber.
Everything came right for British & Irish rugby in the early seventies when first Carwyn James and then Syd Millar were coaches to sides that won Test series in New Zealand and South Africa. Both had impeccable CVs for the job, but what is often overlooked about their successes is that they were outstanding man-managers. James was happy to consult with his players and use their knowledge. His skipper John Dawes had moulded London Welsh into one of the best club sides in the UK and his forwards, particularly Ray McLoughlin and Willie-John McBride, were technical experts who helped the coach to draw up match-winning plans.
Syd Millar brought a different skill-set to the job in 1974 when his charges enjoyed an unbeaten tour. If James was the quiet influence behind the 1971 tour, Millar shone the torch that lit the way for the success of the entire exercise in 1974. Dr Doug Smith was the inspirational manager of the 1971 team but he was still undoubtedly a headmaster figure who was very much in charge of the team. By 1974, it was Millar who was definitely the lead figure of a party managed by Alun Thomas of Wales. Millar, above all, showed that for future success the leading personality on Lions tours had to be the head coach, though it certainly helped to have another outstanding personality in skipper Willie-John McBride to take the reins on the field of play.
British and Irish rugby was in decline relative to the southern hemisphere powers in the late 1970s and early 1980s and with South Africa in the wilderness in the 1980s, there was a six-year gap between the tours to New Zealand in 1983 and the next visit, the first for ninety years solely to Australia, which took place in 1989.
England and Scotland were the strongest of the Home Unions at the time and, taking a leaf out of England's approach to international team preparation, the tour organisers selected a lead coach (Ian McGeechan in the Lions role for the first time) and assistant coach (Roger Uttley). McGeechan took the overview and worked with the backs while Uttley successfully reprised his England role as forwards coach. Clive Rowlands, no mean captain and coach himself for Wales earlier, filled the post of new-era Lions manager with typical panache. The Lions came from behind to win that Test series and the management template for the next decade had been forged, McGeechan even bringing a semblance of continuity to the team by becoming the first lead-coach to go in that capacity on successive tours (to NZ in 1993 and SA in 1997).
The game had become professional in the mid-1990s and the technical side began to make big strides. Technical coaches - analysts who brought a wider eye to how games developed and devised techniques for monitoring playing patterns at both team and individual level - became worth their weight in gold and for the first tour of the pro era, to South Africa in 1997, Andy Keast went along as the Lions analyst - their "third coach". It was a successful development, the Lions winning a famous series by going two-up with a Test to spare.
Graham Henry was in charge of Wales when he went to Australia in 2001 as the first overseas head coach of the Lions. He tweaked the coaching team by taking defence, kicking and fitness coaches before Sir Clive Woodward assembled the biggest Lions squad ever - more players, coaches and back-room staff than before or since - on the ill-starred 2005 trip to New Zealand. Matters were scaled down under Sir Ian McGeechan for 2009 in South Africa, which was a more successful operation than the 2005 visit, and it is likely that Warren Gatland's supporting cast in Australia this summer will be more in line with Sir Ian's structure than Sir Clive's.
Lions designated coaching teams since the position became official in 1966:
1966 - Coach: John Robins (Wales)
1968 - Coach: Ronnie Dawson (Ireland)
1971 - Coach Carwyn James (Wales)
1974 - Coach: Syd Millar (Ireland)
1977 - Coach: John Dawes (Wales)
1980 - Coach: Noel Murphy (Ireland)
1983 - Coach: Jim Telfer (Scotland)
1989 - Head coach: Ian McGeechan (Scotland), Assistant coach: Roger Uttley (England)
1993 - Head coach Ian McGeechan (Scotland), Assistant coach: Dick Best (England)
1997 - Head coach: Ian McGeechan (Scotland), Assistant coach: Jim Telfer (Scotland) with Andy Keast (analyst)
2001 - Head coach: Graham Henry (Wales/NZ) , Assistant coach: Andy Robinson (England) with Phil Larder (Defence), Dave Alred (kicking) and Steve Black (fitness) with Alun Carter (analyst)
2005 - Head coach: Sir Clive Woodward (England), Assistant coaches: Ian McGeechan (Scotland), Eddie O'Sullivan (Ireland), Gareth Jenkins (Wales) & Mike Ford (England) with Phil Larder (defence), Dave Alred (kicking), Dave Reddin (fitness) & Craig White (fitness) with Gavin Scott & Tony Biscombe (analysts)
2009 - Head coach: Sir Ian McGeechan (Scotland), Assistant coaches: Warren Gatland (Wales), Shaun Edwards (Wales), Rob Howley (Wales), Graham Rowntree (England) with Craig White & Paul Stridgeon (fitness) with Rhys Long & Rhodri Brown (analysts)
2013 - Head coach: Warren Gatland (Wales), Assistant coaches: Rob Howley (Wales), Graham Rowntree (England), Andy Farrell (England) with Adam Beard (strength & conditioning), Paul Stridgeon (fitness), Rhys Long & Rhodri Brown (analysts)
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