Gregor Townsend to consult fellow veterans of 1997’s Lions triumph in South Africa ahead of summer tour

It’s almost a quarter of a century since rugby’s British and Irish Lions last won a test series in South Africa, and now one veteran of that tour, former Gala hero Gregor Townsend, is turning to another, Ian McGeechan, head coach for 1997’s trip, for advice on how to go about repeating that feat.

By Darin Hutson
Monday, 19th April 2021, 5:13 pm
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend at Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium last month (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend at Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium last month (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Townsend, named last week as one of current Lions head coach Warren Gatland’s coaching team, also intends to consult another of the New Zealander’s predecessors, fellow Borderer Jim Telfer, ahead of July and August’s games against the Springboks.

West Yorkshire-born McGeechan, 74, was in charge for four Lions tours – in 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2009, winning two and losing two – and Telfer, 81, for one, 1983’s 4-0 series loss in New Zealand, though he was also assistant to McGeechan for 1997’s 2-1 victory in South Africa in 1997.

Townsend is now keen to draw on their experience and expertise as he looks to help Gatland, 57, maintain his unbeaten run as Lions head coach, having won in Australia in 2013 and drawn in New Zealand in 2017.

“I spoke to Geech a couple of days ago and plan on having a lot more discussions with him over the next few weeks,” the Galashiels-born 47-year-old told the Times.

“He was very excited and loved talking about the coaching process and working with players.

“He will be someone I will be on the phone to a lot.

“Jim too. I tend to go round to his house once a year for a coffee and he just lives ten minutes away from me, so I’m sure I’ll be doing that in the next wee while.

“They sounded really excited about it.

“Geech said I would learn a lot from working with outstanding players and getting to know different people and coaching groups.

“He said it will make me a better coach and should make the people you work with better when you bring ideas back to Scotland, so that’s all great for the long term.”

One of the former fly-half’s first tasks as Gatland’s attack coach was to draw up a list of the 36 players he thinks should be in the squad due to be unveiled on Thursday, May 6.

“Who should play for the Lions seems to be the ultimate question in the pub over the years,” said Townsend, Scotland’s head coach since 2017.

“Everyone’s got their XV in their heads. I don’t think many people sit down and pick a squad of 36, but they’ll maybe argue over how many players they expect from a particular country.

“It took a long while for me to come up with my original squad that I gave to Warren. I asked more than a couple of times if it could be 56 rather than 36.

“I’ve been watching a few games I hadn’t seen in the Six Nations and also some club games, just to make sure I’m fully up to speed. I’ll have to do a lot more of that over the coming weeks.

“My 36 names in a few weeks’ time will be very different to this week, I’d imagine, as I’ll know a lot more about all the players, but a lot of very good players are going to miss out.”

Gatland has said he plans to include more Scots on this summer’s tour, following their strong showing at 2021’s Six Nations tournament, and Townsend and Scotland defence coach Steve Tandy, another member of the former Wales gaffer’s coaching team, intend to hold him to that.

“The Scottish players are in a much better position than four and eight years ago because of their performances and consistency,” said ex-Border Reivers star Townsend.

“It will be as tough as ever for them as the competition level is so high, but it will be tough for the English, Irish and Welsh players too as there is real depth there.

“Having chatted to a number of the Scottish players, they are desperate to be involved.”

Townsend is also looking forward to helping prepare a squad without the burden of overall responsibility, he says.

“It will be great to coach more again, working on the field with the players more than you do as a head coach, looking at attack shape and strategies to take on this outstanding South African defence,” he said.

“I’ll be learning a lot from people who have been on the recent tours, Gats in particular.

“He knows the formula that works well for the Lions, and that goes off the field too, to make it enjoyable for the players.

“You want to make this one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. That was my experience from when I was a Lion.”

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