Gregor Townsend reveals Lions bonding sessions and claims Japan is toughest opening game they have ever played
Richard Gough is widely credited with coining the phrase ‘the team that drinks together wins together’ and Gregor Townsend will be hoping the former Rangers captain’s maxim still holds true.
The Lions squad have been holed up in Jersey this past fortnight, where Townsend and the other coaches have been trying to pull off the quadrennial trick of meshing players from different national teams into a cohesive unit capable of toppling a southern hemisphere giant.
Much hard graft has been done on the training ground but all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and there have been opportunities too for bonding off the park.
Townsend has fond memories of a session in a pub in Weybridge which helped forge close ties ahead of the 1997 tour to South Africa and the current vintage have also managed to slake their thirst.
“We have formed close bonds in a few ways - some from having a few drinks and some from working really hard on the training field out in Jersey,” said the Lions attack coach. “But I believe the best way is playing together - going through some tough times in games, finding a way to win and then being in the changing room after having achieved something together.”
The first opportunity comes on Saturday when the Lions play an historic first match in Scotland, taking on Japan at BT Murrayfield. It’s key marker before the squad departs for South Africa and Townsend expects a stern test in Edinburgh against a side broadly made up of the players who ousted Scotland from the 2019 World Cup.
“I think we want to see what we have worked on in training, transferred to a team environment,” said Townsend. “Our training is game based so we are already up to speed with that. I want to see the players making decisions and taking their opportunities.
“You can’t do everything in your first game when you have been together for two weeks. So we are trying to put principles in place that we will see right throughout the tour and Test series. So hopefully we will see more layers to our attack and game plan through the tour.
“We are also aware that it is really important to play with speed, to move teams around, so that when we get to the Test series we can play one or two ways.
“If we just went through limited game plans all the way through, we're not going to find out about our players, we're not going to build that togetherness with the whole group. And we're only going have one way of playing when we get to the Test series.
“So yeah, I'd hoped we'd see a game of movement, but it's a game in which the decision makers are key. We're aware things might not go perfectly as a first outing. It’s the first time the group has been together so if something is not working we can change it and start to press on the things that are working for us in the game.”
Townsend said Warren Gatland expects all 37 players in the squad to start at least one of the first three matches but, intriguingly, the Scot would not confirm if that meant an outing each at 10 for the three stand-offs in the squad, leaving the door open for Owen Farrell to play at centre while Dan Biggar and Finn Russell fight for the fly-half role. The Welshman will wear 10 against Japan, with Farrell providing cover on the bench and Russell sitting this one out with slight ankle issue.
The latter two were late arrivals in camp because of club commitments and Biggar appears to be in the box seat at the moment, with Conor Murray picked to ride shotgun alongside him at scrum-half at Murrayfield.
Biggar, at 31, is the senior stand-off in the squad, three years older than Russell and two older than Farrell. Townsend, who was just 24 when helped the Lions to their Test series triumph in ’97, thinks they are all in their prime.
“Dan has a really good age profile for a 10 - all three do. They have real experience behind them and physically they are still at a really good level,” said the coach.
“Dan has been a key leader for us attack-wise so far and he has driven a lot of what we want to do in Jersey. And to have Conor beside him, on his third Lions tour, it is a really experienced partnership and they have been great and I have really enjoyed working with them and the rest of the squad.”
The last time the Lions played on home soil was in 2005 when they struggled against Argentina in Cardiff, salvaging a draw with a late, late Jonny Wilkinson penalty. They lacked cohesion and went on to lose the Test series in New Zealand 3-0.
Townsend knows the first game is important but he also mindful not to expect too much too soon, particularly against opponents of the calibre of Japan.
“This must be the hardest opening game of any Lions tour,” he said. “The Argentina game [in 2005], I believe it was their second team that played, but this is primarily the team that got to the quarter-final of the World Cup. So, it's a massive challenge.
“You want to see combinations out there, you really want not to finish with any injuries. But, we know we're going to get a real test. We'll get things out of the game, good and bad. We can learn from it and build on it.”