Inside my special reunion with the ’97 Lions
It was just a magical moment. We had the documentary makers embedded with us – some footage of which was shown at times during this week’s meeting – and the footage they captured was so raw, so authentic. The players had fun. There were no smartphones back then, so they could let loose and become tourists, which they did (some of the stories told this week were new, even to me!)
But at the same time, they all bought into the philosophy. They never abused the trust placed in them by myself, Fran Cotton or Jim Telfer, or any of the tour managers. The team came first. Still.
Inasmuch as the players who won the first Test were reminded by Martin Johnson, on their way out to dinner, that they had a job to do the next morning – holding sacks so that the midweek squad had the best possible preparation to play Orange Free State the following Tuesday evening. And what superb rugby they produced in that game.
It’s a testament to how special 1997 was that virtually every player showed up that week. Even Gregor Townsend, whose Scottish team is currently in camp, busy preparing for his tour of Argentina, or Richard Hill who also had to leave the English camp to attend, or Doddie Weir who drove five or six hours from Scotland with his wife Kathy and son Ben. The presence of Doddie, such a big man with such a big heart, as he battles motor neuron disease, was incredibly special.
As for Rob Wainwright’s tribute to the much-missed Tom Smith, it was so poignant. Respect for Tom – who is not one of the most famous players on this tour but whose courage and skills were appreciated by every one of his teammates – sums up this group for me. It was fantastic that Zoe, Tom’s wife, could be with us.
I have to thank Martin, our tour captain all those years ago, and Stan Bagshaw, our bagman in 1997, for organizing this week’s meeting. They did a truly phenomenal job. They didn’t just bring the players together. We had everyone from Sam Peters, our tour administrator and the first woman on a Lions tour, to James Robson, our tour doctor and a big, big man, to Andy Keast, our analyst, to my old friend and fellow coach Jim Telfer.
Spending time with all of them again – and with all of our partners too, some of whom we hadn’t met in 1997 but are all now part of the family – was incredibly special.
I hadn’t seen some of the players or staff for a quarter of a century. But it made no difference. Like I said all those years ago, when you’ve shared something as special as this, just take a look.