When it comes to the British and Irish Lions, Sir Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer have been there and done it, several times over.

The Scots played for the Lions – with 16 test appearances and four tours between them – and have also coached the side, most famously together as head coach and forwards coach, respectively, in South Africa in 1997.

So their thoughts on what it takes to be involved in a winning series carry more weight than the entire behemoth Springbok pack put together.

Both from a teaching background, the chemistry between the two made for a formidable partnership that left no stone unturned in helping the Lions defy the odds and defeat the then world champions.

Emotionally, technically, tactically and in terms of selection, they were often ahead of the game and the good cop/bad cop synergy worked so well in uniting a disparate band of players together to fight for a common cause.

Great minds

“The great thing about ‘97 was that the pieces were there. I've always said, you (Telfer) might be at one end of the field, with the forwards and I’d be at the other end with the backs, but I knew that all the messages were the same, although delivered slightly differently. The game we wanted to play, we both had the same game in our heads,” recalls McGeechan, in conversation with Telfer on the Inside the Tour podcast, published by Auddy.

The first ‘wins’ were not on the field but prior to departure, in the team building sessions, and then at the first press conference in South Africa.

“History is a big thing in South African rugby and they were world champions who expected to take us apart,” Telfer points out.

“I remember the first press conference and at the top table with Fran Cotton sitting there – a massive man – and on his right was you [McGeechan] and I was on the left out of the way a wee bit.

“The reporters saw in front of the two Lions who had been with the 1974 ‘Invincibles’ and yourself and Fran had such a reputation in South Africa that they listened to every word you said.

“I thought, psychologically, there was a gain, if you like, for the Lions because of the men who are actually leading the Lions, yourself and Fran.”

If McGeechan needed any reminding of how huge his reputation was in the game, it came at that press conference.

“I remember it because the Sports Minister (Steve Tshwete) was there and when we got off the plane, somebody came up to the front and said he wanted to see us separately.

“We got in a room with him and he went through all four test matches in 1974. He was with Nelson Mandela at the time on Robben Island. He said they listened to the radio and the minutiae of what he remembered about the test matches was incredible. He said, ‘never underestimate the impact of what you did in 1974’, and he shook our hands.”

Earning respect

The Lions’ management may have been huge in stature but the South African press still needed convincing that the squad they were coaching was big enough to stand up to the Springboks.

Telfer’s “they don’t respect us” line from his never-to-be-forgotten ‘Everest’ speech ahead of the first test summed up the mood and served to motivate his tight-five forwards.

“For that speech in Cape Town for the first test, I had bullet points up on the board and I used those bullet points to get through to the players. I've never used the word Everest before in a speech, and never since, so I don't know where that actually came from,” admitted Telfer.

“Unless it was from the very fact that I realised that having been a Lion as a player and as a coach, that to win a test match in South Africa and New Zealand, in particular, was the pinnacle. That's, I think, where Everest came from.

“I've never used the speech again. People have said to me: ‘By the way, I used your Everest speech and we still got beaten!’ I say, ‘well you should be original’!”

Bossing it 

Selection was another key area that McGeechan and Telfer got spot on, not only in drafting in three players from a rugby league background – John Bentley, Scott Gibbs and Alan Tait – but by opting for an athletic pack.

Rather than outmuscle the Springboks, the Lions’ front-row of ’97 used their smaller stature to their benefit and were able to technically expose the Springboks and negate one of their great strengths, as well as run their legs off.

“Some of the work in the front five that Jim put in, you see it reflected in the first test. They thought we were going to get pushed off the park. I still look at the scrum that Matt Dawson scored his try off and it was an unbelievable scrum. Technically, you couldn't have seen anything better. Now that's what people said we couldn't do,” said McGeechan

“We didn't expect to boss South Africa – what we had to do was take their strength away, so that we were playing to our strengths, and we weren't going to be dominated and play the game that made it easy for them.

“Matt Dawson scored that try because a group of forwards and a front-row knew that if they were scrummaging six inches higher, they were going to be in trouble. And they produced a scrum like that. We were always under pressure, but we actually have parity and a bit more.”

Left-field choices

Telfer picked up the theme … “One of the great lessons that I learned was that selection is key to success. You must remember Paul Wallace wasn't even in the squad when it was chosen. Thomas Smith, I think he played twice for Scotland before he went to the Lions.

“Part of the reason we chose Tom and Paul was because they were shorter than the opposite numbers in the Springboks side, so they could get underneath.

“I have a strange philosophy with props. I like my props to the rugby players first and scrummagers second. I think you can change a player to be a scrummager, but you can't change an out-and-out scrummager into a rugby player.

“When we made the selection the number one props at the time were Jason Leonard and Graham Rowntree, and Tom and Paul Wallace were second choice, but the kind of game we wanted to play meant the forwards had to be able to move the ball and we had to have confidence in them being able to transfer and use the ball to play the game we wanted to play. 

“Jeremy Davidson was an athletic bloke who came into the team, so, again, we had three rugby-playing, new players, if you like, in these positions.

“Tom, Paul, and Jerry weren’t supposed to be in the test team but they came through and they deserved their places.”

Dawson’s famous dummy move helped the Lions to a 25-16 win in the first test before the series was clinched in Durban, thanks to the boot of Neil Jenkins and a rare Jeremy Guscott drop goal.

“I still make a joke with Jerry Guscott when I see him, I think he was only ever in five rucks in his career. But the ball that was turned over for the drop goal? That started with him. He turned the ruck over,” said McGeechan. “And it was Keith Wood, who got in that scrum-half ahead of Matt Dawson, who kicked the ball down and chased it, to get the line out that actually led to the drop ball. So you'd gotten players who responded and reacted to what was needed and could see it.”

Frank conversations

Empowering the players to make choices on the field rather than be dictated to from the stands was another key takeaway from the 1997 tour for McGeechan.

“I've got a perfect game in my head of what you would like to see and some of that rugby in ‘97 was close to the game that I would always want to be associated with,” he said.

“The great satisfaction was seeing the players evolve, and the players change. The front five forwards are far more involved in the game than just winning the ball; they were ball carrying, which meant that the big physical approach of South Africa was being challenged.

“The feedback you got from the players was really honest, and if you tried to do something you’d get feedback saying, ‘If we do it this way, it might achieve it better'. You had those sorts of conversations with the players which were so stimulating.

“We had every training session videoed with the fellas that were there, so we could actually look at everything we were doing in a way that we could move things on, on a daily basis, and look at different players. I'd never been able to do it and I think it was the first real hint of what professionalism could bring to the game.

“Everybody got a suntan in South Africa, except for (video analyst) Andy Keast, he went white because goodness knows how many hours he did in his bedroom.

“We're having conversations and putting ideas and thoughts into the mix to get the real clarity of where the rugby needed to be, where the players by position and unit needed to be, and what they needed to be able to deliver. In the end, it was a privilege to be part of that group because it changed my thinking in the way we could approach players, and the game itself.”

Read more: British and Irish Lions: Your guide to the 2021 squad to face South Africa >>