When Jim Telfer muttered the immortal words, “This is your f***ing Everest, boys” in his gravelly Borders brogue in 1997, it became synonymous with a certain type of resilience that was required for the modern Lion.
Little did Telfer, or indeed anyone else know, that Everest for the 2021 Lions would be navigating an eight-match tour of South Africa in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
It was Harry Houdini who once walked the tightrope across Niagra Falls, and this 35-day tour at Africa’s most southern tip will be similarly precipitous when the Lions circus rolls into town.
The warning signs are there for all to see. Two England football players, Ben Chilwell and Mason Mount, forced into quarantine for being seen to embrace a Scotland player and club team-mate, Billy Gilmour, during the Euros. In order to secure the bubble, the duo were forced into isolation and missed two key games.
With a shortened tour, every squad member knows he can ill-afford to miss games through an avoidable transgression.
Only this weekend, in the England A match-up at Welford Road, eight Scottish players have had to go into isolation after coming into contact with another player who had tested positive. The fixture was cancelled on the morning of the match.
It doesn’t bear repeating that the UK has administered 76 million vaccines, with more than 32m fully vaccinated.
In South Africa that number is 2.5m who have had first jabs and a country of 60m is in the throes of a third wave, with Johannesburg its epicentre and the beta variant its bête noire. For that reason, there will be no partisan home support present.
Indeed, the stakes could not be higher for the tourists. When Warren Gatland let slip that he’d had to sweet-talk his Lions paymasters to the tune of £100,000 to find some extra legroom and get Courtney Lawes on the plane, you can see the financial implications of having to ferry more brutes over to South Africa for what promises to be a hugely attritional tour.
Duhan van der Merwe talked of not being able to see his girlfriend even though she was four minutes away. For seven weeks it will be life through a lens for the tourists unable to interact with the hoi-polloi.
The players are already sacrificing time with their families and friends for a shot at immortality and those icons of 1997. Of course, the accoutrements of being a winning tourist could plump up bank accounts by reportedly £65,000 a man but someone like Josh Adams is forsaking being at the bedside of his partner who is due to give birth to their first child. After his costly faux pas during the Six Nations, Adams feels it is a sacrifice worth making, whereas Ben Youngs, a tourist in 2013, chose to stay with his heavily pregnant wife with their third child incoming. These are deeply personal decisions and no judgment should be passed.
With a picture-postcard trip in Jersey that kept the locals and Instagram feeds happy, the squad will be securely ferried to Murrayfield today after a morning rapid lateral flow Tests. Duhan van der Merwe talked of not being able to see his girlfriend even though she was four minutes away. For seven weeks it will be life through a lens for the tourists unable to interact with the hoi-polloi.
Gatland is cognisant of these hardships the players are undertaking. He knows their every step will have to be monitored and the drink-fuelled touring tales of yore will simply not be allowed to happen. A few beers in the hotel. A kangaroo court or two, but no gallivanting in the fleshpots of Jo’burg and Cape Town as their predecessors did. Gatland expects maturity from his charges. “We are very aware of the pitfalls. They’ve had a couple of campaigns in the autumn and the Six Nations and the home nations were pretty good in terms of staying Covid-free. There are two messages and have to make sure that we adhere to the protocols and make sure there is no hugging,” he said.
Gatland is no curmudgeon and is known to be partial to the odd glass of red after a day’s work but he accepts this will be a tour like no other: “It’s strange at the moment because even though we’re in our bubble, there’s a familiarity to what we’d normally do, apart from the fact the boys on their day off can’t go into town and have a coffee. We are aware of the restrictions and we have to plan accordingly and keep the boys entertained the best way we can in our bubble,” he said.
Squad harmony is paramount. In the plush, yet claustrophobic confines of their luxury hotels, when 37 alpha males are vying for spots, it would be unusual if tensions were not to boil over. The job of the management is to release the pressure valve.
Gatland has spoken at length about how his touring party, which he laboured long into the night to select, were chosen not solely for their athletic gifts, but their reputations as stand-up men. The sort of characters who would happily brush shoulders with foes they would normally be knocking ten bells out of.
Squad harmony is paramount. In the plush, yet claustrophobic confines of their luxury hotels, when 37 alpha males are vying for spots, it would be unusual if tensions were not to boil over. The job of the management is to release the pressure -valve from time to time. To find a way of engineering some space for the jousting adversaries.
There is also the hollow feeling of no guttural ‘Lions’ chants from the travelling support, which would have topped 30,000 before the pandemic.
Gatland has seen the transformative effect of having a stadium flooded with supporters clad in red first-hand on each of his three tours, and he knows they will be missed. “There’s a hint of disappointment and sadness that we’re not going to have fans and have the ‘Sea of Red’ that you associate with the tour. The atmosphere they create in the grounds is something else,” he said.
If you thought whittling down the finest players in the home nations was an impossible job, sidestepping a constant invisible threat is invariably harder. Much harder than trying to fell an onrushing Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
For the whole of rugby, their wish is simple. It is just to watch and revel in one of the great sporting institutions without a blemish on the tour schedule and the people partaking in it.
The dash for places starts today against the derring-do of Japan. An aperitif to the main event. To a man, Gatland says his players are showing an aptitude and attitude for the challenge ahead and they will need all of Telfer’s hard-bitten courage to emerge in early August with a series win and their reputations enhanced.
For the whole of rugby, their wish is of the simpler sort. It is just to watch and revel in one of the great sporting institutions without a blemish on the tour schedule and the people partaking in it.
It has the potential to be wondrous. An epoch-defining series that makes us feel good about the sport we love. Fingers and toes are crossed.
Chocks away for the 2021 vintage. It’s going to be emotional.
More stories from Owain Jones
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