x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Room for bonding among the Lions

Ian McGeechan, the British and Irish Lions coach, is the perfect man to right the wrongs of the Sir Clive Woodward regime, according to one of the main successes of the victorious 1997 side in South Africa.

Ian McGeechan, the British and Irish Lions coach, is the perfect man to right the wrongs of the Sir Clive Woodward regime, according to one of the main successes of the victorious 1997 side in South Africa. McGeechan has established arguably the finest coaching reputation in rugby on the back of his triumphs with the Lions, with whom he is currently touring for the seventh time.

His successes have been characterised by shrewd judgment on selection, such as his decision to recruit John Bentley for the tour of Africa 12 years ago. Bentley had not played Test rugby union in nearly a decade, but was handed a wild-card by McGeechan on the basis of the superior fitness he had reached playing professionally in the league. It proved a masterstroke. Bentley became a linchpin of the squad as the Lions claimed a 2-1 series win, which remains their last series win to date.

McGeechan has now been restored to the head coach role, following the failures of Graham Henry in Australia in 2001 and Woodward in New Zealand four years ago. Since touching down in South Africa on Tuesday, the players have been sharing hotel rooms, a policy which Woodward opposed. "We had a massive tour party," said Bentley, the former England winger, who recently converted back from rugby league. "Woodward got everything wrong.

"There were two standout things for me; he took 50-odd players on a short tour, and he gave them all their own rooms. "If you are on a rugby tour, especially a professional rugby tour, your room can be a lonely place. You miss your family, someone is always missing home or having a bad day, or a bad game." Stephen Jones, the Welsh fly-half, predicted on arrival in South Africa that the Lions would foster a team spirit more quickly as a result of the shared-room policy, as he said: "I can understand Clive's thinking, but sharing rooms breaks down barriers."

Bentley added: "They are deemed to be the cream of British and Irish rugby. The challenge is to make them into a team, in a short space of time. "Traditionally the Celts - Welsh, Scots and Irish - don't like the English. Us northern boys are all right. It's the southern boys they don't like because they are all a bit full of themselves. They have the right man for that challenge." McGeechan's methods will get the first test of their currency when the Lions play their opening warm-up match against the Royal XV at the Bafokeng Sports Palace tonight.

The Ireland lock Paul O'Connell will lead a powerful line-up that includes seven Wales internationals. Keith Earls and Jamie Roberts make their debuts in midfield. McGeechan has named an all-Ospreys back three of Lee Byrne, Tommy Bowe and Shane Williams, with the Ireland Grand Slam winner Ronan O'Gara pulling the strings from fly-half. O'Connell will be partnered in the second row by England's Simon Shaw.

"While we have a lot of players making their Lions debuts, there is a huge amount of international experience in the team," McGeechan said. "The average age is 28 and that reflects the maturity we have in the squad." pradley@thenational.ae Royal XV v British and Irish Lions, kick-off 6pm, Showsports 2