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Buoyant Lions start quest

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Simon Austin | 22:35 UK time, Sunday, 24 May 2009

One of Ian McGeechan's first objectives as Lions coach has been to try and engender a sense of fun and camaraderie in his squad.

On the evidence of the "farewell tea party" held before the squad flew to South Africa on Sunday, the wily Scot seems to have achieved his aim.

Jerry Flannery, his arm in a sling following the shoulder injury he sustained on Wednesday, was chatting to Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell on a sun-drenched patch of lawn.

The Ireland hooker had chosen to stay at Pennyhill Park to support his Lions team-mates despite having been ruled out of the tour days earlier.

Lions captain Paul O'Connell

Wales winger Shane Williams was trailing after his young daughter, who seems to have inherited her father's elusive running skills.

And there was the disconcerting sight of defence coach Shaun Edwards conducting interviews wearing floral swimming shorts and a towel draped over his shoulders.

Martyn Williams, who will be writing a regular column for this website during the Lions tour, said the atmosphere in camp had been excellent.

"We've worked hard but have also had a few drinks and a good laugh," he said. "Everyone seems to be getting along really well."

The flanker, a Lion for the third time, said things weren't right off the pitch on his last two tours.

"My main memories of the 2001 tour of Australia are hotel rooms and rugby pitches," he said. "At the end of a long, hard season, there wasn't the downtime that would have kept us fresh.

"In 2005 the squad was split after the warm-up game against Argentina and we travelled separately and stayed in different places after that. So you weren't able to get to know the rest of the lads. Geech is sensitive to this and this week has been a great start to the tour."

Welsh forward Andy Powell already seems to have emerged as the Lions' joker in the pack and greatly amused his team-mates at a black-tie dinner for 500 guests last week.
When the master of ceremonies asked the management to stand up, Powell was the first to officiously rise to his feet.

McGeechan believes camaraderie is a crucial part of a Lions tour and was a big factor in their series win over the Boks in 1997.

"The Lions is such a unique thing and togetherness has to be a big part of it," he said. "You have to understand each other as people as well as rugby players."

Yet the 62-year-old knows it will only get the team so far. The 2009 Boks are fitter, better organised and more professional than they were in 1997, according to the Scot.

Lions Head coach Ian McGeechan and defence coach Shaun Edwards

The Lions took part in two training sessions a day at Pennyhill Park and the intensity was far greater than at the same stage 12 years earlier.

Scrummaging coach Graham Rowntree, who played for the Lions in 1997 and 2005, said: "Physically, the Boks are on a different planet to other nations. We need to match them for fitness, intensity and self-belief."

The players weren't able to watch the Super 14 semi-final between the Bulls and Crusaders on Saturday because it clashed with one of their training sessions.

But McGeechan watched a recording and word soon spread about the performances of the Bulls' Springbok contingent, particularly Pierre Spies.

The number eight was immense, showing his pace to score a long-range try as his side won 36-23. "I hear he had quite a good game," said a smiling Phil Vickery, with some understatement.

Rowntree added: "They have got some incredible athletes in their pack, who combine pace, power and know-how. It's not only Spies I'm talking about, but the likes of Schalk Burger, Juan Smit, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield."

So despite their encouraging first week together, the Lions know the hard work is yet to really begin.


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