Today in the Ironmonger’s Hall of London, which was said to represent the old Manchester Hotel where the first ever Lions squad suppered, Warren Gatland was revealed as the new head coach of the British and Irish Lions.
Perhaps it was rugby’s worst kept secret, but nobody cared. Staff running orders were left on the table, listing when ‘GW’ would walk in and be announced. Everyone had already begun speculating about who he would select as his coaching mates. Old internationals and gnarled journalists exchanged fondly misremembered tour tales.
No one really worried about the specifics of why they were there; they just cared that they were there for the Lions.
As the swarm of media were ushered into the hall, many were chatting and laughing, trying to suppress the excitement. As a VT began without warning, Jim Telfer’s voice boomed out with “This is your Everest, boys.”
There was a frisson of electricity. Hairs stood up, and you could tell that all in the room recognised the sentiment, but more so than this, it excited them. Later on Kenny Logan was overheard telling an established journalist, “Telfer still scares me…”
And it is thus. No matter the age, no matter the experience, all in the room were stupefied. As Gerald Davies and Andy Irvine skirted round corporate thanks to talk about the tour, everyone listened with the reserved respect. They knew this was the last of the touring sides. They knew that traditions from 1888 were important. They knew that this was the biggest test of any British and Irish player’s career.
To hear talk of “white heat” and tour arrangements long established was to hear what one knew all along: this would be serious, and the rhetoric would be gloriously unceasing.
The Lions would visit Asia. They would embark upon a rugby mission, before hopping over to Australia. They would play ten games in seven weeks. They would respect the Wallabies, but they would try to break them.
Of course there was much to ponder. With the Hong Kong fixture against the Barbarians falling on the same day as the Top 14 final, discussions had to be held. Gatland would begin his search for coaches over the next few weeks. His team would be picked, and repacked, over the Autumn Internationals, the 6 Nations and then the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup.
Few questions were put to the Kiwi coach, though. The reverence and startled awe ensured that even the most cynical of revellers were satisfied.
It was left to a heavy-breathing, but happy Gatland to assure the crowd that he was fit for purpose, following a badly damaged ankle in the summer, and reassure that he was fully aware of the significance of his role.
After the official press conference, Andy Irvine insisted to me that there were contingency plans had the Wales head coach not been fit. However, these were simply back-up plans held over May and beyond, as all waited for medical clearance. He was still the outstanding candidate. He was still a mightily respected Grand Slam winning coach.
Gatland has earned his spot, according to tour manager Irvine. He has shown an understanding of cultures during his time with Ireland, his time with London Wasps and his time with Wales. He has played against the Lions. He has curbed his talk and taken things in as an assistant. He is ready to coach the famous side.
He will scout the Australians in Argentina and he will make another trip in December. He was present when Australia were handed “a rugby lesson” at Eden Park. He has spoken of a clean slate for everyone, and will also make a trip to see Perpignan and Bayonne, as well as talking about the release of players from France.
He knows time is already pressing.
This conference did not have to be held under antiquated paintings and coats of arms. There did not need to be Lions branded tablecloths and gift packs. There did not need to be a master of ceremonies and prepared statements. Whatever had happened, everyone would be pleased with what was sat in front of them.
125 years of Lions’ rugby still held a mystique for every single person present at the conference.