The last victorious British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa was back in 1997 and though it was ultimately delivered by a swing of Jeremy Guscott’s right boot, there is a different theory as to why the tourists triumphed over the then world champions. During a week’s preparation camp in Weybridge, Surrey, the team manager Fran Cotton took the squad to a nearby pub, ensured the players were well oiled and allowed for barriers to be broken down, crucial bonds forged.
“That is what won us the series, that week before we got on the plane,” remembers Matt Dawson, while Lawrence Dallaglio recalls how, “we were a group of people who spent their careers as international rugby players kicking the shit out of each other and suddenly we had to develop a sense of complete togetherness. We had one week to achieve it because if we didn’t get on that plane feeling part of the same team, we wouldn’t have had a hope in South Africa.”
Listen to those accounts and it becomes all the more clear why Warren Gatland is desperate to have as many of his players available as possible for what he believes will be a critical two-week preparation camp in Jersey in June. Those close to Gatland insist there is nothing hollow about his threat to overlook players based in England if the Premiership clubs do not allow them to attend – even if their seasons are finished – and a key reason is that, in the era of social distancing, the “complete togetherness” that Dallaglio references is all the more difficult to achieve.
That, in turn, goes some way to explaining why Jersey has been selected as this year’s destination. For previous tours Gatland has held camps at the national bases of Wales and Ireland but there is a sense that a change of scenery for all four nations is preferable.
Moreover, life is closer to being back to normal on the island. Gatland returned to Jersey this week with the Wales and Lions doctor Prav Mathema and to do so he needed special exemption. According to the Jersey roadmap, however, the intention is for all restrictions to be lifted on 14 June – just in time for the squad’s arrival. The Lions will be subjected to some form of a quarantine spell on the island – which may depend on from which part of the UK they are arriving – but given the stringent bubble restrictions they will face in South Africa, the importance of spending two weeks beforehand with a degree of relative freedom cannot be overstated.
Of course, drawn out drinking sessions are not as essential to the modern day rugby player as their predecessors but Gatland will find other ways to ensure his players break bread together. In 2017 he introduced choir practice every night after dinner as not only a means to ensure the Lions could respectfully reply to traditional Maori greetings in New Zealand but as a way of unifying his players.
On the pitch too, these camps are invaluable. Key partnerships will be formed in training – think of the 10-12 axis of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell in 2017 – and there are defence systems to learn, lineout calls to memorise. Gatland is determined to give all his players a start before the Tests to stake their claims to face the Springboks but as each tour goes by, and each gets squeezed that little bit more, it is all the more difficult. If there are no England based players at the Jersey camp, or available for the warm-up Test against Japan on 26 June, it becomes nigh-on impossible.
It is unlikely Gatland will flog his squad after a gruelling season which began in August but don’t be surprised to see one or two sessions spent running up and down the sand dunes in Jersey and preparing his players for the thin air on the South African Highveld will form a key part of the camp.
Again, this is where Jersey comes in. For all that the island will bring welcome relief, it is fair to say that the Lions would not be heading there were it not for the new multimillion-pound training facility – due to open next month – adjacent to the Jersey Reds pitches. The state-of-the-art complex, Strive, comes complete with a hydrotherapy pool and altitude chambers and is perfectly placed, next door to the airport and a short walk from the Reds’ four pitches.
“The gym facility next to the rugby club [Strive] is outstanding and it fits our needs well,” says Gatland. “We understand we may need to quarantine for a certain amount of time but there’s a potential for almost normality in Jersey in preparation for that first game against Japan, before we go into a pretty secure bubble for South Africa. That’s definitely one of the factors we considered for Jersey.”
From there they will fly straight to Edinburgh for the Japan Test before heading for South Africa – and if the Premiership clubs do not relent, only then would their players join up with the rest of the squad. Given the uncertainty that lingers over the tour, the third Test at Ellis Park still feels a long way off but if the Lions make it that far still in the hunt for the series you sense Gatland will have gotten his way.