Working with Lions

Working with Lions

Jeff Jackson has been fortunate enough to work with two sets of British and Irish Lions. He led the Squad Development Programme prior to the 1997 Tour of South Africa and four years later with the 2001 Lions in Australia.  In this article, he looks back on what it was like working with elite performers, what he learned about high performing teams and why the 1997 approach was so successful.


In 1997, I was working at Impact Development Training Group in the Lake District.  A dynamic, innovative company who were fast developing a reputation for building High Performing Teams. We approached Fran Cotton who was leading the 97 Tour and asked if they might be interested in working with us.  A few weeks later we met Fran and Ian McGeechan at a service station on the M6 and it was clear from the outset that their thinking and ours was closely aligned.  It was a good start.

 I knew Fran from our time together at Loughborough College but had not seen him for twenty years or so.  After his rugby career ended he had become a successful businessman and wanted the first Lions Tour of the new, professional era to be run differently from previous tours.  Rather than use a traditional ‘top down’ approach with the Management Team imposing a Code of Conduct on the squad; he believed that they should empower the players and work closely with them to create a ‘one team ethic’ that everybody was signed up to. He felt that the players were more likely to honour a Tour Code if they had been involved in creating it. He was right.

Ian had been on Lions Tours as a player and as a Coach and knew exactly what culture he wanted to create.  He was convinced that the key to a successful tour was a close relationship between the players and management but more crucially how the ‘Mid-week team’ and the ‘Saturday team’ related to each other.  As a Lions Tour progresses, the players selected for the Saturday games are more likely to be those in contention for a place in the Test Team and as a result those in the mid-week side can feel that they are less important and ‘go off tour’.  Prior to 97 they were known as the ‘dirt trackers’.  Ian knew that to be successful the two teams had to operate as ‘one’ and every player needed to feel valued.  They also needed to know that whatever team they were playing in ‘a Test shirt was up for grabs’.  In 97 several players in the ‘midweek side’ before the Tests began found themselves playing South Africa.


The ‘One Team Ethic’

 My own beliefs about teams and how to get the best from them had been reinforced by a book called ‘Sacred Hoops’ by Phil Jackson, Coach of the Chicago Bulls. A fascinating account of how he built a ‘selfless team’ around Michael Jordan, the world’s greatest basketball player. Jackson believed that a high performing team required ‘an act of sacrifice’ to be made by every player: a willingness to put the ‘team first’ even if that meant putting their own hopes and dreams a close second.  This was the culture we set out to create with the 1997 Lions.

 It had taken the Chicago Bulls a year to develop that culture.  We were going to do it in a week.

We used the analogy of an expedition trying to climb Everest.  Every climber wants to be in the ‘summit party’ but they know from the outset that only a few of them will be.  However, every climber plays their part in putting the lead climbers in the best position to succeed.  The question was whether this group of Lions wanted to be collectively remembered as a tour party that beat South Africa or be individually remembered as having won a test shirt? If it were the former, it meant half the squad would have to put the Tour Goal before their own personal ambition.

The Impact Sessions were a series of team and individual challenges interspersed with the daily Rugby Sessions.  We created teams of players and management and changed the teams every couple of days to ensure people worked with as many different people as possible.  Some tasks required them to work together to solve problems whilst others involving height and water were more physically challenging.  All the sessions were reviewed afterwards and as the week went on we progressed from talking about the exercises to people talking about themselves and their hopes for the forthcoming tour.

In the final session, we spent three hours in small groups developing a ‘Code of Conduct’ that was later to become known as ‘The Lions Laws’.  Each group was empowered to develop a policy to cover some crucial aspects of living and working together on a Lion’s Tour.  There were discussions on Discipline, Dress Code, Alcohol, Curfew, ‘One Team Ethic’ and Selection. Once a team had agreed on the policy it was presented to the whole party to be modified and then ratified.  It was a long but powerful session and it laid down a solid foundation for everything that happened in South Africa.

‘Put a marker down’

Nobody expected the 97 Lions to stand a chance of winning the Test Series.  The South Africans were World Champions and Southern Hemisphere rugby was still way ahead of the rugby being played by the Home Nations. In his opening address to the players Ian McGeechan used these powerful and prophetic words:

‘I want us to put a marker down in South Africa about the way we can play rugby.’

You could feel the atmosphere in the room change.  You could sense people thinking ‘I want to be part of that’. Those simple words encapsulated what the 97 Lions were about.  A touring party of 47 players and management committed to each other and to doing ‘something special’. That was where the dream was born.

‘I want a Test Shirt’.

One of the most important lessons I learned was that competition and collaboration can coexist within a team without it becoming divisive.  That was a real eye opener for me.  We had talked about every player wanting a ‘test shirt’ and the fierce competition this would create.  We reinforced the idea that every player should strive to be the ‘best they could be’ whilst recognising that not everybody could be ‘the best’. Competition for a Test place was fierce but it was used to drive up the level of performance. However, once the test team was announced the non-selected player was expected to do two things:

                ~ Take responsibility for being the first to congratulate the player selected

                ~ Work tirelessly with that player to help prepare them for the Test

It had been talked about and agreed before the tour and everybody knew what was expected of them and why it was important. They did not let us down.  If you watch the classic rugby video ‘Living with Lions’ you will see how strong the one team ethic was.  Prior to the Tour, Jason Leonard was probably a favourite to make the test side but missed out.  He remained committed to the Tour Goal and represented everything it means to be a Lion.


‘Leading’ Personalities

The Management Team were great to work with and had an interesting blend of personalities and styles that were complimentary.  Fran was hugely respected as rugby player, businessman and a statesman.  Ian was a visionary, a shrewd tactician capable of getting the best out of every player and knew what it took to be a Lion. Jim Telfer the Forwards Coach was a hard task master and expected players to give everything they had for the team.  He made it clear from the outset that in his experience there were only two types of player – ‘the honest ones and the rest’.  The former would look in the mirror and ask themselves the tough questions.  They were only interested in how they were going to ‘get better’.  The others looked for excuses as to why they had not met the mark.  Nobody argued with Jim.

There were some big personalities in the playing squad but by the end of the week at Oatlands Park we could see that they understood what was expected of them.  The team was going to bigger than any individual.  Only one player struggled with that ideal but later played an important part in winning the series.

Any behaviour that threatened to undermine the ‘one team ethic’ was to be challenged.  We had laminated ‘yellow cards’ made especially with the Lions Laws printed on them.  The real test of course was whether the code would prevail once the tour started.  It did and Fran’s belief that players would respect a code they had been involved in creating proved to be true.

The 1997 British and Irish Lions went on to win the series and eventually the ‘one team ethic’ would become a template for future tours to emulate but not before two subsequent tours got it wrong.

2001 – ‘A Missed Opportunity’

In 2001 I left Impact and I set up my own business called 9.9 World Class Performance.  We combined with Impact and once again was given the chance to work with the Lions.  This time we knew what we were taking on and more importantly most of players had worked with us in 1997.  Then our approach was completely new but four years later they understood what we were doing and trusted us. Expectations were extremely high.

We met up with the Management Team of Graham Henry, Donal Lenihan, Phil Larder and Andy Robinson a few weeks before the squad got together and whilst they appeared to want to recreate the ‘magic’ of 1997 it was clear to us at that initial meeting that this was a vastly different set of personalities.  They were very intense individuals who only wanted to talk about training schedules, playing style and strategy.  We wanted them to talk about how they were going to work with each other and the players, but they were very ‘task focussed’ from the outset. This was an early sign that this management team were not necessarily on the same page as us. The players got it but did they?

I still believe the work we did with the 2001 Lions was better than our work in 1997.  It was a stronger squad and there is no doubt in my mind they should have won the series in Australia 3 – 0.  As the tour progressed it became clear that the Management Team were committed to excellence but not the ‘one team ethic’. What made things worse is that most of the players who had been with us in 1997 had extremely high expectations of the Management Team.  They felt let down.  When Paul Broom and I arrived in Australia for the first of the Test Matches, Brian O’Driscoll asked us if we had ‘come to work’ and when we said, ‘No we’ve come as spectators’ he said, ‘there’s work for you to do’.  They won the first Test, but it was not a happy camp we walked into. Matt Dawson and Austin Healey both made their views clear in the British Newspapers and subsequently nearly got sent home.

It was so frustrating to be there and to watch the work we had done unravel.  Graham was the first foreign coach to work with the Lions and he didn’t really understand what being a Lion meant.  He was a New Zealander and not surprisingly an All-Black mentality underpinned his approach.  I liked him and spent a lot of time trying to persuade him to manage the players differently but whilst he was very polite and receptive, he never altered his philosophy.  Recently he admitted that he was not the right man to coach the Lions in 2001 and that his ‘coach led’ approach did not work with this group of players:

“If I had done it differently, we could have got the job done [beating the Wallabies]. I was a team-orientated coach, not a player-orientated coach. But that is the way it was.’

However his experience with the Lions in Australia was to be a watershed in his coaching career:

 ‘I realised that things had to change. I changed my coaching style, looked to involve players and give them responsibility.”

Unfortunately, he was not able to change at the time. Whilst Graham might not have been the right man to lead the 2001 Lions I cannot agree with him when he says the job should have gone to Clive Woodward. Clive had been immensely successful with England, creating a culture of excellence that made them World Cup Winners.  Given the job of leading the 2005 Lions to New Zealand he was later to be heavily criticised for leading ‘the worst Lions Tour ever’.  He created two sets of Lions from the outset each with their own management team. Too many players, too many managers and no sign of the ‘one team ethic’. The complete antithesis to everything that had been learned in 1997. Ian McGeechan should have led that Tour.

2009 to 2017

Ian got his chance to save the Lions franchise when he was appointed Head Coach on the Tour to South Africa in 2009.  They were very unfortunate to lose the series 2 -1 but what was abundantly clear was Ian had returned to the ‘one team ethic’ that he passionately believed in.  He appointed Warren Gatland as Forwards Coach and this was the start of three tours where Warren would be responsible for recreating the winning 1997 formula.

If you look at the personnel involved in recent Lions tours, you will see that there has been a lot of continuity.  Up to 2005 the Management Team was always a new one.  Not the best model for ensuring that learning was passed on!

The last three tours have had Warren Gatland at the helm and the results have been impressive.  They were close to winning in South Africa, beat Australia and were very unlucky to draw the series in New Zealand.  The Lions has become a huge global brand with a massive fan base.  A long way from 1997 when their place in the professional era was being questioned.

Working with the 97 Lions was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career and working with the 2001 Lions one of my most frustrating.  The players were nearly the same and were totally committed to the ‘one team ethic’ but our fears about the management team’s philosophy proved to be well founded.  Players returned saying they ‘would not go on another Lions Tour’.  The 2005 Tour that followed was even more disastrous before McGeechan once again re-established the ‘one team ethic’ and handed the baton to Warren Gatland.  Between them they have been involved in 6 Lions Tours, winning 3, drawing 1 and losing 2.

It remains to be seen if the Lions will tour in 2021 due to Covid 19 but if they do at least we know what to expect. The ‘one team ethic’ remains central to any team that aspires to greatness.  However the first and crucial step is to create a deep vulnerability placed trust.

Members need to feel safe to be themselves, speak honestly and share their dreams.  Most teams fall at this first hurdle. Humility is the first step to greatness with no place for ego.  When I stood in front of the 1997 Lions at Oatlands Park and talked about what we wanted to achieve, I did not really know if the players would buy into it. When I stood in front of the 2001 Lions I had no doubt about the players, but I was worried about the Management.  The lesson is clear.  Every single member has to be committed to the vision, to the goals and to each other. ‘One Team’ means ‘One Team’.