Ian McGeechan is blown away by the technology powering the modern-day Lions as they prepare for their 2021 tour to South Africa. He has done his bit, filming motion capture footage with Sam Warburton, Paul O’Connell and Jeremy Guscott so that fans can download a Vodafone app and become a ‘Digital Lion’, a gaming-style 3D animated virtual avatar using the movements of this famed Lions quartet. 

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The 74-year-old was fascinated to see his daughter wearing a virtual Lions kit after downloading the app, running and passing on her lounge carpet as if she was her dad in his heyday when he was playing and coaching the northern hemisphere’s most famed band of rugby tourists.

It’s a polished gadget that is multiple universes beyond what snail-paced communication used to be like when McGeechan was a 27-year-old occupying the No13 shirt as the Willie John McBride-led Lions did a telling number on the Springboks, sweeping the 1974 Test series 3-0 and drawing the final match. 

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They were innocent times sharply brought back into focus for McGeechan during the recent spring lockdown, his wife presenting him with a treasure trove of letters that had gone back and forth between the UK and South Africa some 46 years ago.  

“They are quite hilarious,” he told RugbyPass. “The dog says hello, all the mundane things you are doing which kept us in touch really over nearly four months. In fact, I managed one phone call in three-and-a-half months, the last week where Syd Millar allowed us one phone call to ring home, so communication was very different.

“At that time we were paid 75 pence a day I think it was. They called it a communications allowance that you could buy two stamps a week and write home. My wife kept all the letters and we opened some of them during the last six months.  

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“Some of the stuff: just saying she went to the shops, walked the dog, whatever it was and me saying what had happened at training, what we were doing or travelling again. Very mundane things but effectively like what you would put in an app or a message these days.

“It had to go into a letter back then and you had to wait ten days sometimes for a reply because they came to a PO Box in Jo’burg and they were all collected there. Sometimes they would be held five days, seven days, then put in a big sack and they would go to the next hotel. 

“Sometimes we wouldn’t have had something at one hotel and then we’d arrive at another and there would be this big sack in the team room which was just tipped out in a big heap in the middle of the room. Then everyone became postmen so you would be shouting people’s names out and just swapping all the letters in the room until the pile had gone.”

Technology intrigues McGeechan. Analysis for him initially consisted of a pencil, a board and some paper but in the early 200s, while in charge at Scotland having led the Lions to 1997 series victory in South Africa, he immersed himself in Australian rules methods of breaking down a game so that by the time he returned to South Africa as Lions boss in 2009, what was available at his fingertips was very different to how he had started out.   

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“I’d like to think coaching-wise I stayed involved with it [technology],” he said, speaking from the Lake District last Tuesday before heading home in time for the latest English lockdown. “I used to break up videotapes back in the late 80s, early 90s. 

“In the early 2000s, the best analysis was being done in Australia in Aussie rules. Aussie rules is one of the most advanced sports for that and I spent time with Sydney Swans and in Brisbane, looked at what they did, and that evolved into the technology that is being used over here these days. 

“To see how you could put onto a laptop what you wanted as a coach to look at and then you could click on those things as the game went on and subdivide them and so on, I found that fascinating. That is 18 years ago now and it became part of our game. I brought it back and used it with Scotland in 2002 just ahead of the 2003 World Cup. 

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Ian McGeechan visits a school in Westport on the 1977 Lions tour to New Zealand (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Getty Images)

“I have always had that interest and fascination with collecting data. I used to code games with a pencil and write them out. I used to have my own codes that I used for where players went or what they did and then break it all down when I got home, team direction, player involvement and so on.

“To get it now where you can have it in front of you instantly as a coach watching a game is fascinating. Even back in 2009 (with the Lions), we had six computers in front of us all telling us different things. One of them was set to an 18 seconds delay so if there was an incident on the field we wanted to look at again, there was no rewinding.

“You just switched screens and there you were again looking at it again to pick up information, and it has all moved on again now where it tracks players. You can see whether they are falling off the game a little bit or whatever and it’s instant. It wasn’t ten days waiting for a letter as we were in 1974. It’s so very different.”

And yet, despite it all, McGeechan wouldn’t place 100 per cent judgment on technological findings, insisting that the naked eye still has an invaluable role to play in coaching. “It [technology] gives you a good picture of player involvement which is important. What is still a hard thing to do as a selector is watch a player when he is not in the game for ten minutes, see what his involvement is because often the best players and the players that make a difference see things early. 

“You can see their reaction, where they go and the spaces they go into. That is what the analysis system I was talking about, Sportscode, the Aussie one, can be set up to actually look for things like that. But you have to be careful, I still believe you don’t do all things on data. 

“The data gives you a highlight and an indication but sometimes you still need that gut feel and the best thing is to just watch a player or be there and for Lions selection, (Warren (Gatland) will know most from the games he is at and what he is looking at because a camera can only give you a certain view.

“That perspective of being there and being able to see how things change and how things adapt in front of you is still really important. But without doubt, that back-up information of rucks hit, tackles made, whether they are positive or defensive tackles, which direction they are going and so on and where you make them, the difference they make is important so accumulatively it helps the picture.”

McGeechan was once known as the Lions King, someone who had played on two Lions tour before going on to coach on five trips, four as the head coach. But his eminence has since dipped, Gatland now running the show and preparing to head coach his third successive tour next year after McGeechan brought him into the fold as an assistant in 2009. 

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Ian McGeechan with Warren Gatland as his assistant in 2009 (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

The Kiwi who had hooked against the Lions on their 1993 New Zealand tour would go on from there to become the modern-day McGeechan, Gatland’s 2013 series win over Australia and the drawn 2017 series in New Zealand meaning there was no need for much discussion when it came to selecting who should take charge in 2021.  

“I’d known him for ten years,” explained McGeechan about his hunch way back that Gatland could be the perfect fit for the Lions. “When I was at Northampton he was at Connacht and then with Ireland and me with Scotland and so on. Then with Wasps, I followed him there. 

“I got to know him quite well and just talking to him, we had a lot of similarities I suppose which helps. He played against the Lions, had a respect for the Lions and he understood what the Lions is about. In 2009 I asked him to speak to the squad early on in the tour and he said: ‘Can I leave it until later? I don’t think I have earned the right to speak to the players.’

“He was so respectful of the Lions and the Lions badge, and the other thing he said to me was, ‘This is the first time I have seen British and Irish players look at a badge the same way as a New Zealander looks at an All Black badge, looks at the fern.’ 

“Again that resonated. He understands what the Lions is because he has also got experience of being a New Zealander playing against the Lions and actually having that respect for something that is different and which within the players’ environment is still the ultimate challenge to be part of. His understanding of the Lions is so good and how he manages that group has been ideal for being able to create the right environment.”

McGeechan, who has been outside the game since stepping away from the Yorkshire  Carnegie mess in May 2019, is hoping the pandemic stalking the upcoming Lions tour will eventually disperse, allowing him to proceed with plans to be there in person next July for the three-game Test series.   

It’s a duel where he is hopeful that Scotland can finally announce their arrival as a major player again on the Lions scene. Gatland was subjected to criticism due to picking just three Scots in a 37-strong squad for Australia in 2013 and just two in the 41 players named for the 2017 tour to New Zealand. 

But even with McGeechan in charge, just two Scots were originally chosen in 2009, four years after the disastrous 2005 tour to New Zealand led by Clive Woodward ended with the media room witheringly singing Flower of Scotland when Gordon Bulloch came on for the final two minutes of the final Test match, the only Scot to be involved versus the All Blacks. 

“Yes I would,” said McGeechan when asked if he envisaged the 2021 tour would mark the beginning of Scotland’s Lions re-emergence after far too long in the selection doldrums. “Scotland haven’t always had that strong group which is important, and they have got some players in key positions who are real first-class international players.

“Go back to 2009, Scotland were playing so poorly that it was very difficult to justify looking at where you could select a player. I’d a couple there and I would hope nobody would think I was biased against being able to pick a Scottish player, whereas now genuinely Finn Russell I’d take. I took Gregor (Townsend) in ’97 because playing South Africa you need that ability to do something differently.

“You need a pack of forwards that can actually compete and get the right ball in the right areas but sometimes you need backs who can just respond instinctively to something and make a real difference and Finn does that. 

“Stuart Hogg and the front row (Rory) Sutherland, he is a ballplayer. You have got to be physical to be very competitive but I still believe you have got to have players who are confident enough to play rugby to challenge South Africa on their own soil. If you can get the physicality and the ballplayers, then it puts you in a position from which you can tactically evolve and Scotland have that. 

“(James) Ritchie in the back row has been outstanding. He is a lineout man but he is competitive, he’s big and is a natural ball carrier. (Jonny) Gray has shown he has come on with Exeter so there is some genuine conversations you can have in a number of positions which you couldn’t genuinely have back in 2009, even 2013. Sam Johnson who hasn’t been playing, I also personally like and would have a really good look at for South Africa.”

Six suggested Scots, one more than the combined number chosen in 2013 and 2017. That would be quite the repaired relationship after far too long in the Lions wilderness. 

  • Ian McGeechan is part of Vodafone’s new British and Irish Lions initiative, which uses gaming technology to transform fans into ‘Digital Lions’ via the new 2021 Lions Tour app on iOS and Android. Download now to create your own Digital Lion and exclusive content.
  • Be part of the 2021 Lions Tour of South Africa which is nearly sold out. Book your ticket-inclusive packages before it’s too late with the comfort of the Lions’ Covid guarantee and be part of the ultimate rugby experience. See affordable packages here.

       

 

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