British & Irish Lions chairman Jason Leonard shares his thoughts on the upcoming tour of South Africa in 2021.
What is your best Lions memory?
‘It is a really weird thing to explain. I am a very proud Englishman. So I know what it meant to me when I pulled on an England shirt. The British & Irish Lions are different. You are the best of everyone, of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It is never an easy start to any Lions tour. You have spent the last four years kicking lumps out of each other and you have got to put aside those differences you have. I will always remember one of the coaches, Sir Ian McGeechan, saying that you leave your nationality at the door. You are not an Englishman, Irishman or Scotsman, you are a British & Irish Lion. Don’t sit in little cliques. We are all in this together. That really resonated with me.
What is the biggest challenge for a Lions team?
‘One of the biggest problems is trying to find enough time to get some decent training and time together. You have got to have like-minded people involved. If you are inflexible, you are most probably not going to enjoy your Lions tour. Everything about a Lions tour is about change; there could be an injury and you might have to play on a Wednesday and a Saturday. You have to have people who want to do well, but also do well for each other. That’s the big thing. You might have match-winners, but you also have a lot of people in Lions teams who are selected to work for the team. A fantastic winger will only get the ball if the pack is working hard. There is a lot dependent on other people. That’s what every rugby team is about, but even more so with the Lions because you are playing with someone you have most probably never passed a ball to or caught a ball from. If you were lucky to do a Lions tour in the past, it might have been the only time you have done it. That’s also what makes Lions squads unique. From memory, no Lions team that’s gone to New Zealand and then South Africa has been the same. That’s why you have to make the most of it. You will never get that chance with the same people as well.’
Explain your role as the British & Irish Lions chairman for the tour of South Africa.
‘With that position, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes before we even get on a plane or play a bit of rugby. It’s making sure we are in a robust position before we go anywhere. You have got another administrative level underneath that and then you have got your coaches, staff, your backroom people, your list goes on. So it is quite extensive being part of that. A successful chairman is making sure that Warren Gatland, the players, whoever it may be, gets every opportunity to be the best they can be. That may mean taking administrative work away from them, PR work or TV work so that they can go out and train and play. Focus on being the best you can be. We understand that we have contractual obligations on this tour, but going back to what the Lions team is about, you cannot be inflexible. We want to help people. My role is to help everybody on this tour be their best.
There will only be eight games in next year’s tour. Does that help or hinder the Lions players?
‘It’s a tough one trying to fit this into the season every four years. The last tour was 10 matches so we have lost two for this coming tour. It’s an extra challenge on top of the already huge challenge of going to South Africa and playing in those stadiums with great support. It would be nice to have extra time, but we understand it’s not always possible. You try to work with people back in the UK and Ireland to make sure we’ve got access and players get a chance to get together. Sadly the days when we played, when you would go on tour and be gone for six months, are not possible now. It is what it is and we have just got to get on with it. Would we have liked a couple more games? Most probably. But that gives a different challenge too. If this Lions squad went through unbeaten on this tour, it would still be a huge achievement.
How critical are the tight fives and set pieces going to be?
‘If you ask anybody who has played South Africa in South Africa, there is a physicality there that you have to match. As a front-row player, you look at your opposite number, you want to play your game and do well. Dominating now these days is a tough call, because it is more about inches. But it’s still there. In 2009, there was a lot of pressure on South Africa. The pressure of being World Cup champions, like you were in 1997 and now in 2019 – you can’t make that up. There is a lot of expectation there. The Lions will be under no illusions that whatever side takes to the field, it will have to be a side that in their own heads cannot take a backwards step against the world champions. If you take that backwards step in South Africa, you are not going to be in a good place. You have got to front it and give as good as you get.’
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