Ian McGeechan expects a tougher tour than 12 years ago but warned how the Lions phenomena will swamp South Africa from next week.
In both the 1997 and 2009 Lions tours to South Africa the Boks were world champions but McGeechan highlighted the settled nature of the hosts this year. In 1997 Carel du Plessis had just been appointed coach, while the Boks had also lost World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar.
Now the Boks still have the senior players who took them to world domination in Paris in 2007, while mentor Peter de Villiers has also had more than a year to settle in his job.
‘I think they are a stronger side than 1997,’ said McGeechan. ‘They have a very good coaching team with a settled group of core players. They know what they are doing.
‘South Africa have a huge tradition of winning series against touring teams but a Lions Test series is different. That is why this is a massive event. This is the first time since 1997. You can see from their players how big it is,’ he said.
Despite the global economic recession, over 30 000 fans are expected to arrive from Britain and Ireland, while adidas Lions jerseys are expected to sell more than soccer clubs Real Madrid and Chelsea’s shirts this year. British Airways have also got behind the Lions as they have named the plane carrying the team into Johannesburg next Sunday ‘Air Force Scrum’.
‘The Lions are even bigger now, maybe because of 1997,’ McGeechan said in reference to how the brand has grown. ‘At that time it was the first professional Lions tour but people were saying it could be the last Lions tour. But in many respects the Lions have got bigger.’
Despite the advances of professionalism McGeechan has gone back to the old ethos of touring in order to mould the squad together quicker at their training camp that began on Monday. Players will share rooms – which wasn’t the case in 2005 – while the social aspect has been promoted.
‘This is still a group of players who want to achieve in a Lions jersey,’ said the coach. ‘You can be professional or amateur but that is the tradition, that is the experience they want as much as anybody over the last five decades. That is the bit that doesn’t change.
‘We are sharing rooms, we are doing things together. Those are the things that just accelerate the understanding, where you get to know each other as a room-mate not just a team-mate.
‘We will be finishing this week with a barbecue and a beer because the best way to get to know someone is over a quiet drink in a less formal environment.
‘The social bit is important. When 90% of the tour is off the field that will impact on where we can get to as a group of people.’
In team news, Alan Quinlan will appeal his 12-week ban for eye gouging and could still be involved in the tour, but will miss the start. His hearing will take place next Wednesday in Glasgow.