The Scot last coached the team in 2009
Around 8.30am on Saturday morning, the 2017 Lions team will take to the field in Toll Stadium, Whangarei to face the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.
Watching on in a television studio in London with “goosebumps” down the back of his neck will be Ian McGeechan. The 70-year-old says that’s the way he always feels when he sees a Lions touring team for the first time.
McGeechan has been involved in seven tours as a player and coach. He led the team to Test Series victories in Australia and South Africa, but it eluded him in New Zealand as both a player and coach.
The team go into the ten-match tour as heavy underdogs. New Zealand are favourites to win the Test series 3-0, but McGeechan feels the Lions have to be "competitive" from the moment they land on New Zealand soil.
“They need the ability to develop and be allowed develop to be competitive in the Test matches," McGeechan told Newstalk.com. "Being able to win Test matches, whether it’s 2-1 or 1-2, they have to be competitive and be able to win Test matches."
With only six games to look at the 41-man squad before the opening Test match, McGeechan feels head coach Warren Gatland will need an “open mind” on team selection, and will see players play their way into selection.
McGeechan worked with Warren Gatland in 2009. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
“You do have ideas of what you want and what you want to see. It would be wrong not to say that. I have never ended up with a Test team that I thought about early on. The thing evolves.
“Because the Lions is so different, you have to give the players the chance to show what that they can show in different combinations. You go back to Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts in 2009. They were the best centre partnership in the World and they had never played together.
“When you come to the Test week, and you have to pick the Test team, sometimes it’s got feelings of what you’ve seen. If you’ve given the players the opportunity you can say hand on heart that we are selecting on what we have seen. That’s what I’ve done.
“The hardest team to pick is a Lions first Test team, as a coach, because of the circumstances in what you have to do it.”
McGeechan is the man who introduced Gatland to the Lions, and was quickly impressed by how the Wales coach bought into the Lions mantra. The New Zealander was the Forwards Coach in 2009, when McGeechan coached the team for the final time.
“I asked him as Forwards Coach to speak to the team around three games in. He said; ‘No. Can we leave it? I don’t think I’ve earned the right to speak to the Lions yet as a group.’ He got it.
“‘It’s the first time I’ve seen British and Irish players look at a badge, the same way New Zealanders look at the All Blacks badge,’ Warren told me. He knew. He played against the Lions. He knew how big the team is to New Zealanders.”
The 2017 Lions team travelled to New Zealand on Monday. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
The Lions have the toughest tour in living memory, with games against all five Super Rugby teams and the Maori to come as a way of preparing for the Test series. McGeechan thinks the schedule is tough, but will prepare the team.
“If the Lions come through the first five games, they will be really Test match-ready and fit. It won't have done them any harm. Most players will only have played two or three games.
“They will go into the First Test in a good position. [New Zealand head coach] Steve Hansen has said his players will play in those games against the Lions. He wants his players to get a feel of playing against the Lions.
“The Lions will be Test match-ready just from the quality of opposition.”
No Lions team has won all of their non-Test matches since McGeechan’s side of 1989. He thinks losses for the 2017 side will not be damaging, if the team continues to evolve in the buildup to the Test series.
“As long as internally, they feel their own game is developing and getting strengths - if there is the odd loss or two, it’s irrelevant. If they come to that First Test tactically and technically in good shape and free of injury, that’s the important thing. Winning the First Test puts all the pressure on New Zealand.”
Despite the task facing Gatland’s side, McGeechan feels the team will do better than is expected.
“It will be a competitive Test series. It won't be an easy one. New Zealand are slight favourites. They are World Champions in their own country. It’s very rarely they lose.
“The Lions are the best group of players to take on New Zealand at the moment, from any other country in the world. No other country can put a squad together that’s as good as this one to take on New Zealand."
Ian McGeechan was speaking in Dublin on Tuesday at the launch of CocoFuzion100, a new range of coconut water drinks.