'I wanted players who were decision-makers, ones who were not afraid to play it as they saw it at that moment in time. South Africa were the best defensive side in the world. We had to break them down and the only way to do that was to have talented players who were thinkers, who could react off each other and to different circumstances.'
Ian McGeechan, 1997
NOT a lot has changed in the space of 12 years, and there are bound to be echoes of Ian McGeechan's words in 1997 when the Lions squad is revealed at lunch time on Tuesday. South Africa are the reigning world champions, they still have the best defence around, and in order to avoid the sort of fire-fight they're bound to lose, the Lions are going to have to rely on brains rather than brawn once more.
This time, however, there will be one key difference. In '97, the Springboks were undone as much by their own hubris as by the Lions' surprising solidity in the set-pieces and Neil Jenkins' magnificent goalkicking. The Lions were allowed to come in under the radar as the Boks presumed, rather than planned.
With infinitely greater TV exposure of the game in both hemispheres, and with more cross-pollination of coaches, it will be much harder for McGeechan to repeat his surprise series victory. There's always the chance that South Africa, who tend to get behind their coaches the way the Cork hurlers get behind Frank Murphy, will implode if Peter de Villiers makes an unholy mess of things, but it's an outside chance.
With stealth no longer a weapon, tour manager Gerald Davies, McGeechan and his coaches have a serious job on their hands. Coming off the back of a pretty constipated Six Nations in which players were under orders for the most part to hoof the ball rather than run, there isn't exactly a feeling that the Springboks have a huge amount to fear.
If the likes of Toby Flood, Mike Blair, Ross Ford and James Haskell are among the 35 or 36 names announced in a couple of days time – as it seems they will – you can be forgiven for not feeling the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. If the Lions play with the sort of tactical inertia that afflicted the Six Nations, then they won't have a prayer.
Typically, though, a squad which heads off on what looks to be a doomed tour can gel and produce a test team with the full body of the 1997 vintage. Even in the hard-nosed professional era, there is still a place for simple camaraderie, and contented players make better players.
And with the Grand Slam stashed away, no group of players will approach the tour with a wider smile than the Irish. As many as 10 got the vote when Ronnie Dawson was captain in 1959, and a record 11 made the cut for New Zealand in 2005 when Clive Woodward, in his wisdom, squeezed Uncle Tom Cobbly and all onto the plane.
On Tuesday, the contingent will surely be in double figures again, with the possibly of as many as 12 in the party. It's certain too, that the captain will be Irish. "Picking the right captain was vitally important to the tour," said McGeechan in 1993 when he went for Gavin Hastings ahead of Will Carling. And even if the '97 manager, Fran Cotton, made more of the running in pursuit of Martin Johnson than McGeechan, the choice turned out to be inspired.
With Ryan Jones out of the leadership race and not even sure of a place in the squad, the contest turned into a straight head-to-head between Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell. On form, both fulfil the criterion of being guaranteed test selection, but this will be O'Driscoll's third tour and he is the one player with extensive experience of captaincy. If he was cut off in his prime four years ago, he knows the Lions' ropes and is now well used to balancing his own preparation with the media obligations.
O'Driscoll doesn't deserve it because of what happened in 2005, he is simply the logical choice after leading Ireland to the Grand Slam. Ieuan Evans and Johnson were the two candidates in '97, and because McGeechan later said he liked the idea of, "Martin knocking on the door of the opposition to toss up. Every other captain would invariably be looking up to him," the notion that a hulking forward was somehow the only option to lead a Lions tour to South Africa became ingrained.
If O'Connell was the natural successor to Anthony Foley as Munster captain, it's not as if he hasn't flourished of late under O'Driscoll's leadership. A tower of strength during the Six Nations, there's no reason now why Ireland's two most dominant personalities shouldn't take on the same roles with the Lions.
Although speculation over the captaincy has been intense especially in this neck of the woods, that decision was probably the easy bit for McGeechan. During last Wednesday's selection meeting when the coach knocked heads with Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley and Graham Rowntree, matters would have become a little more complex. McGeechan almost certainly went into the meeting with close to 30 names he wanted in the squad, and although he has the final say, he probably left with much to ponder over the final five or six picks.
It's likely that most of the discussion was taken up with the choice of forwards and half-backs. Even if the Lions are hoping to out-think rather than out-muscle South Africa behind the scrum, they are still going to need some serious grunt to get them some ball.
If they stick to the traditional four props, then John Hayes could be edged out by Phil Vickery or Adam Jones, but if five happens to be the number, then Hayes is in with a shout. Jerry Flannery, Lee Mears, whose top-notch throwing makes up for a lack of bulk, and Ford look to be the hookers of choice, although a punt on the abrasive Dylan Hartley could bring more reward than Ford as the safe bet.
In most computations, O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Alun-Wyn Jones are certainties, but the fourth lock is bound to generate some debate. Simon Shaw is the front-runner, however there are cases to be made for the athletic Nick Kennedy and for Nathan Hines. In the end, Shaw's physicality and experience should sway the vote.
In the back row, David Wallace, the only other Irish representative apart from O'Driscoll and O'Connell who would be certain of a test place today, is looking good. As are Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip. Joe Worsley, for his defensive qualities, and Tom Croft, for his versatility, are also sure things, however Tom Rees may sneak in as an extra openside along with Martyn Williams given that Wallace may well end up as the squad's best number eight.
The overrated Haskell will probably get the vote, but if current form is genuinely being taken into account, then the outstanding Alan Quinlan should be included. Quinlan is a quintessential strong character and decision-maker, and if his selection means leaving Ryan Jones kicking his heels, then so be it.
With Jonny Wilkinson, who hasn't played since September, out of the frame, Stephen Jones and Ronan O'Gara are odds-on to be named as two of the out-halves. Toby Flood, James Hook and Danny Cipriani are in the shake-up, with Flood likely to be given the nod, however the unpredictable but hugely talented Cipriani, would be the sort of gamble that might just pay off on South Africa's hard pitches.
Similarly, while Mike Phillips (too inconsistent), Mike Blair (too predictable) and Harry Ellis (too slow) are the main contenders at scrum-half, Danny Care would be a more ambitious choice. And if McGeechan is thinking outside of the box, then he should also go with the much-improved Tomas O'Leary who is the best defender of the lot.
At the risk of seeing the squad through a green haze, it would be disappointing if it emerges that Keith Earls never got a mention during the selection debates. Although the centres are likely to be O'Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Tom Shanklin and Riki Flutey, Earls has an x-factor quality, as well as pace and versatility.
Although Thom Evans, Ben Foden and even Matt Banahan may come into the equation, the back-three choices appear to be fairly predictable. Luke Fitzgerald is surely too talented and too promising to be ignored, Tommy Bowe played himself into contention during the Six Nations, and while Rob Kearney's form has tapered off somewhat, he still deserves to go.
One wing berth is probably up for grabs and if Mark Cueto's form of late has been particularly impressive, McGeechan may opt for Paul Sackey who he knows and trusts. Alternatively, Earls could make the cut as wing-cum-centre who can also play at full-back.
As ever, there will be delight and dejection, but whichever way the selection dice tumbles, Tuesday promises to be a good day for the Irish.