Ahead of an eagerly anticipated British and Irish Lions tour which has took an endless amount of work to finally put together, Lions chairman Jason Leonard sat down to chat with his World Cup winning coach about what lies ahead.
Sir Clive Woodward: You seem to be the busiest bloke in rugby at present trying to make this 2021 Lions tour happen. You made me smile by asking if we could do this with an old fashioned phone call and not Zoom.
Jason Leonard: I’m cutting down on Zoom — I’m Zoomed out. I spend so much time on it that it’s driving me bonkers. I have got a bunch of mates from my Barking days and we try to meet online on Friday evenings for a beer but to be honest, sometimes the last thing I want is more Zoom. My lockdown hair is out of control as well.
CW: You will be the first Lions manager ever with a ponytail, Jason.
JL: That’s one way of looking at it, Clive.
Lions chairman Jason Leonard sat down to answer the questions of Sir Clive Woodward
CW: I’ve been following the Lions situation with great interest. Everybody wants the tour to take place, yet it is such a difficult scenario you are dealing with. The latest news seems more encouraging with the plan to tour as originally planned, but getting fans to the games remains a massive issue. Everything seems to change so quickly with Covid.
JL: In one way it’s very fluid — I can be talking to one of the guys in South Africa on the Friday and things have changed by our next call on Monday — but in another way, the situation is quite clear. Our intention has always been to tour South Africa until or unless somebody in authority tells us that we can’t.
The Lions are a touring team, that’s what we do, that is our DNA. Finding a way of making it happen has always been our approach. Ideally there will still be some spectator capacity at the grounds. The fans are very important to us. It wouldn’t be our famous wall of red, but it would be a presence which would be great.
CW: So you haven’t given up on some fans attending?
JL: If that can’t happen, if it has to be behind closed doors, then that works for us as well. The lads from all four home unions have been producing some amazing rugby for club and country in recent months in empty stadia. They have adapted brilliantly. We are confident it won’t affect their intensity and passion.
We needed to explore other options. We had the kind offer from the Aussies to host the series and that for me was an example of the rugby family working together. We also considered postponing it for a year but a Lions tour and a World Cup in back-to-back seasons worked for nobody, and we looked at the practicalities of a home series.
Leonard says a potential lack of fans ‘won’t affect intensity and passion’ of the Lions stars
CW: I am pleased that you as a distinguished former Lion, who holds the concept dear, has been at the forefront of this. Maybe the big worry is that the decision would be more of a financial one.
The Lions ethos must remain paramount because that is what matters most to the players and supporters. Lose that ‘magic’ and all could be lost going forward. So, touch wood, we have a tour but how is this going to work practically? Bubbles, hotels, itinerary, squad size.
Most Lions in my experience rate the South Africa tour as the greatest tour of all — amazing rugby, great country, the people, climate, rounds of golf, winery visits, barbecues on the beach. I toured with the Lions in 1980 as a 23-year-old and it was simply the best playing experience bar none. I loved every second of it, but 2021 is clearly going to be different.
JL: Different, unique, difficult, but hopefully still memorable. We have to accept that the traditional South Africa tour is impossible. But that does not mean that it won’t be an inspiring tour that people still talk about in 50 years’ time. For me, Lions tours are always about overcoming the odds. They have to be difficult, that’s the whole point of the challenge.
Four very different competing teams and nations coming together, virtually zero preparation time, different combinations getting to know each other, playing the strongest nations in the world on their home turf. This is the third South Africa tour on the hoof when they will be the world champions. Harsh climate, heat, altitude, hard grounds — that is unique to South African rugby and those challenges remain.
Sir Clive and Leonard seen together during their time with the England national team in 2003
CW: Agreed, the Lions keep touring not because it’s easy but because it is difficult. Do you think the players can adapt in time, keep their discipline and morale high in a testing, restricted environment? In one way my heart goes out to them — to view South Africa from the hotel window will be hard — but it’s still a Lions series against the Boks. For every player it will still be a dream come true.
JL: I believe they will because the modern players are ultimate professionals. We will have to operate in a bubble but sports teams around the world have learnt to deal with that. There will be laws and strict regulations to obey. I talk as somebody who broke a few rules and regs on tour in my time, as you know, Clive. But that was then, this is now. It’s only for five or six weeks of your life, the guys will adapt and cope.
CW: You weren’t known as the ‘fun bus’ without good reason but that also means there is no one better equipped to be the poacher turned gamekeeper, and heaven help any player who decides to cross you. The trend these days is always for bigger squads to cover every eventuality.
I wonder if there isn’t a case this summer for a smaller streamlined group, because there is no jet-lag to worry about? They will be living on top of each other in the hotel, they will need to stay tight and together, a bigger squad might make that even more of a challenge.
JL: We are looking at that. My gut feeling is we need to pare back a little and reduce the risks of picking up a random Covid positive. But we must not go overboard. We must not be under-resourced for a series against the Boks. And the mix needs to be good. There is going to be a lot of downtime in the hotel without everybody disappearing to their rooms and their smart phones and computers. The entertainment committee will be very busy, a big appointment!
CW: Yes, that chemistry needs to be strong. Even though we lost the series 3-1 in 1980, the chemistry among the lads was great. I made friends for life — I not only played with but shared a room with the great Welsh centre Ray Gravell, who was tragically taken from us far too early.
Generating that spirit is part of the art and science of selection. What is your experience of the Lions brotherhood and getting that camaraderie right?
Leonard during his playing pomp with the Lions, under pressure from Chad Alcock (left)
JL: I always remember in 1993, my first Lions tour, turning up for our pre-tour bonding camp at a hotel in Surrey, and I wandered into the team room with a few of my England colleagues. The Welsh, Scots and Irish were just the same.
We all did it automatically but Ian McGeechan wasn’t having any of it. He sent us all back out of the room and told us to come in again as a proper squad. Sit with somebody who wasn’t from your own nation. ‘You leave your nationality at that door, for the next eight weeks you are a Lion,’ insisted Geech. So simple but I never forgot it.
You have to park your ego, it is the team that counts at all times. I started the 1997 tour leading the Lions in Port Elizabeth for the tour opener against Eastern Province — captain for the day, a huge honour and personal high. But Tom Smith and Paul Wallace emerged as the Test props. They were on fire and, along with Keith Wood, were exactly the right front-row combo against the huge Boks pack.
I had been a Test starter in ’93 in New Zealand but now my team role became to support them in every way I could at training and to give my all in the midweek games to make sure we maintained momentum. My only Test action was a few minutes off the bench during the First Test in Cape Town, but 1997 was my favourite tour of all. We were such a close group, everybody contributing. That’s the magic we must preserve.
Sam Warburton (centre), Jack Nowell (left) and Rhys Webb seen during the 2017 Lions tour
CW: A Lions tour hits you from all angles — the challenge of playing the strongest teams in the world on their home patch. Nothing is easy and straightforward.
JL: Firstly the rugby is unbelievably hard, everybody you play against wants to take you down, and it can catch up on you.
CW: I hope you can capture some of that camaraderie this summer. Even under difficult circumstances the characters always come to the fore, the Lions always have big characters.
Well done Jase and thanks from all rugby fans for sticking with the Lions heritage and history. I wish you and the 2021 team every success.
JL: Thanks, Clive.