Lions 2013: How does a British & Irish Lions squad bond together?

 

It is the same dilemma faced by every British and Irish Lions coach: How do you blend four countries into one?

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When you're in a Test and the chips are down, there's nothing to be gained from how well you dovetailed with someone on a giant oil painting

Donncha O'Callaghan 2005 Lion

How do you create a bond in a few short weeks that binds 37 players into a cohesive, harmonious whole ready to tackle a southern hemisphere power in a three-Test series?

Warren Gatland has less time than any of his predecessors to find the right formula.

His whole squad gathers for the first time on Monday for an 'admin' day in west London - collecting kit, posing for official photos, and fulfilling media and sponsors' commitments.

About a third of them - with European and domestic finals to negotiate - will only play a meaningful part in preparations once the entire party reconvenes the day before flying to Australia on 27 May.

So how have previous Lions squads attempted to accelerate the bonding process? And what might lie in store for this group? Former Wales flanker Martyn Williams, a Lion in 2001, 2005 and 2009, and others give us some insight.

BREAKING THE ICE

"Meeting up is like your first day at secondary school," Williams recalls. "You've got your group of mates from primary school - or in this case, the guys you play with for your country - so you tend to stick together.

"That'll be easy for the Welsh boys because there are so many of them. It must be very daunting for the Scottish boys, because there have only ever been a few of them on the three tours I went on.

Lions squads (original) by nationality

  • 1997 in SA: 18 English, 8 Welsh, 4 Irish, 5 Scots (35 total)
  • 2001 in Aus: 18 English, 10 Welsh, 6 Irish, 3 Scots (37 total)
  • 2005 in NZ: 21 English, 10 Welsh, 11 Irish, 3 Scots (45 total)
  • 2009 in SA: 8 English, 13 Welsh, 14 Irish, 2 Scots (37 total)
  • 2013 to Aus: 10 English, 15 Welsh, 9 Irish, 3 Scots (37 total)

"You have to break down all the barriers as quickly as possible. If you are going to be a successful team, you have to get to know each other off the field.

"It is up to the senior boys who have been on a Lions tour before to set the tone. On my first tour it was the likes of Keith Wood, Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson who reinforced the point straightaway - 'Forget your nationality, you're all Lions now'."

Part of that process will be sharing rooms with players - including legends of the game like Brian O'Driscoll - from other nations.

Ireland lock Donncha O'Callaghan recalls his "child-like" excitement when he checked in at the Lions' pre-tour base in 2005 to discover that England World Cup-winning flanker Richard Hill was his room-mate.

"It was hero worship," he wrote of his admiration for the qualities that gained Hill so much respect from team-mates. "Most of all he was selfless and that appealed to me. That was how I saw myself."

That selflessness is a key ingredient of a successful Lion, although sharing with unfamiliar faces can also have its drawbacks.

"You don't want to get Mako Vunipola," warns England flanker James Haskell of the giant Saracens prop who has won selection. "He snores to a different level apparently. His nickname is Snorlax.  "

TEAM-BUILDING EXERCISES

In a sign perhaps of things to come, Graham Henry's 2001 Lions endured work-outs at the Army's Physical Education Centre in Aldershot and assault courses in the grounds of their Hampshire hotel.

(From left) Ronan O'Gara, Rob Henderson and Will Greenwood play musical instruments before the 2001 Lions tour

Ronan O'Gara, Rob Henderson and Will Greenwood get to grips with samba in 2001

But there were also some light-hearted attempts at inspiring unity - playing maracas, drums and tambourines in a samba band together for example - and more serious get-to-know-each-other sessions.

Martyn Williams found himself talking about the recent death of his younger brother Craig from skin cancer.

"You had to talk about your background, your hopes and aspirations," the Welshman recalls. "It was a bit daunting. I was in Martin Johnson's group. My brother was fresh in my mind. The people in charge were just trying to get everything they could out of everyone. They pushed us to break down more barriers."

In 2005, Sir Clive Woodward's squad were split into teams and asked to draw and paint Lions motifs.

It is safe to say the framed copies of a bloated 45-man squad standing next to the huge mural that resulted probably do not hold pride of place in many living rooms. Bemusement and scepticism abounded.

"It did nothing for me," says O'Callaghan. "I had to draw a rhino in my corner of the canvas and I stuck a cigarette in his mouth.

(From left) Iain Balshaw, Brian O'Driscoll and Lawrence Dallaglio listen to a motivational speech in 2005

Iain Balshaw, Brian O'Driscoll and Lawrence Dallaglio listen to a motivational speech in 2005

"When you're in a Test match and the chips are down, there's nothing to be gained from how well you dovetailed with someone on a giant oil painting."

On another occasion, each group had to perform short sketches from TV shows in front of the rest of the squad.

Some, such as Gavin Henson and Shane Williams, were "absolutely mortified" by the prospect, according to Shane Williams. "Looking back now, it was fun," he says. "But at the time the idea of making a fool of myself in front of guys whom I already found intimidating was petrifying."

For the more outgoing characters such as England lock Ben Kay, who took a starring role in a scene from Bullseye,  this was a chance to shine. "It wasn't really my cup of tea," says Martyn Williams. "But you weren't surprised to see 'Daws' [Matt Dawson] heading up a team on Question of Sport after that."

ON THE TRAINING PITCH

Although players from Leinster, Leicester and other clubs involved in finals will do little with the Lions before they arrive in Hong Kong, those involved in camps this week - in Wales - and next week - in Ireland - can expect a rude awakening.

"The intensity of the training sessions will shock a lot of the boys who haven't experienced it before," says Martyn Williams.

"Some guys might go through the motions a bit with their club or country because they are guaranteed a place, but you can't do that on a Lions tour.

"Competition is so fierce and you want to lay down a marker from day one because every training session is scrutinised by the coaches.

"So much is structured in rugby these days - your line-outs, your defensive system, your attacking strategy. In 2009 we concentrated more on getting that right than the other stuff.

"We trained hard together and I think this squad will as well, because that is Warren's whole ethos - on the pitch and in the gym. That brings the boys together as much as anything.

"It happened with Wales at their Poland training camps - they had some tough sessions there and you go to some dark places together. But I hope these Lions also find a window to have a few beers together."

IN THE BAR

In 1997, tour manager Fran Cotton took the whole Lions squad to a local pub near their Weybridge hotel. The bonding process that ensued was later credited by Dawson as "what won us the series" in South Africa.

The Lions celebrate their series victory in South Africa in 1997

The 1997 Lions in South Africa were the last to celebrate a series win

"It involved a couple of nights of just sitting in a room with a keg of beer, telling stories, and just getting to know players," recalls the ex-England scrum-half and three-time Lion. "That relationship just blossomed as the tour went on."

These days it is not so easy for a group of 37 professional players to go to the pub without it becoming a public, rather than private, experience. But the benefits of a little lubrication were also felt four years ago.

A planned team-building exercise involving sailing on the Solent was scrapped for a night in the hotel bar instead. The players had returned to the hotel at 11.30pm after the farewell dinner and were supposed to be up at 6am.

"[Former Ireland flanker] David Wallace was the only one disappointed we weren't going," Martyn Williams says. "Apparently he's an outstanding sailor so he got a bit of ribbing about that.

"Fortunately we got a call to say 'the sailing's cancelled, everyone in the bar'. 'Geech' [head coach Ian McGeechan] and 'Gats' [Gatland] were there, we had a few beers, Riki Flutey and Jamie Roberts got their guitars out, we had a sing-song and it instantly broke down the barriers.

"We did a training session the next day and you could sense the team spirit straightaway. We clicked as a group from then on. I think that was as close to the magic formula of the three tours I was involved in."