Gavin Hastings and George Gregan discuss the British and Irish Lions tour
With the British and Irish Lions tour of Hong Kong and Australia less than three months away, a legend from each camp sat down with James Porteous to talk about the series. Gavin Hastings, perhaps the best Scottish player of all time, played in two series for the Lions, winning 2-1 in Australia in 1989 and then captaining the tourists in 1993, when they lost 2-1 to New Zealand. George Gregan has made more appearances for Australia than any other player, and played in the 2001 series when the home team won 2-1.
SCMP: How do you guys see the series unfold?
George Gregan: It's been talked about for a while and I think the Six Nations results have just added another level of excitement and expectation. Tickets sold out in about 15 minutes so they're going to be playing in front of full houses, and the quality of rugby should be excellent. I think the way Wales played will be a blueprint for the way the Lions play, that's the way [coach] Warren Gatland likes to play. It's going to be a tantalising series, I think it'll go down to the final test in Sydney.
Gavin Hastings: What you have to understand, 24 years ago I went on the first full Lions tour to Australia and there's only been one since, so these guys, if they're very lucky, will only get one chance to play the Lions in their whole career. From a British and Irish point of view you get the chance to go on tour on more than one occasion and Brian O'Driscoll potentially could go on four, which is extraordinary.
Interestingly, both teams who lost the first test in the two previous tours in 1989 and 2001 went on to win the remaining two games back-to-back, which is very, very difficult to do.
From a Lions perspective, coming from four different countries the challenge is to mould a team and try to find the guys that work together, to challenge Australia, who have played together for potentially five or six years.
Warren Gatland made a very interesting point at a dinner in New York a few weeks ago, he said on balance the Lions should never have a chance of winning. Teams like Australia, South Africa and New Zealand have been together for years and this is a collection of guys with different playing styles and backgrounds - in theory they should never have a chance.
Gregan: In 2001 we were just outclassed and outplayed in the first test and sort of got hijacked in our own country, in terms of the support they had. The test matches go to another level. We were underprepared for the Lions experience. The first half of the second test, the Lions were still the dominant team, we were hanging on. Momentum is so important, it just takes moments, I think Joe Roff intercepted Jonny Wilkinson and that really changed the mood and momentum and that carried on to the third.
But it's some prospect when you get a really strong Lions squad (which it was in 2001 and is going to be this year) playing against a Wallabies team which gets its full complement of players, highly motivated as Gavin said for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Well it's once in a lifetime unless someone like Georgie Smith, who is in the mix now that David Pocock is injured, gets selected. If that happens he'd be the first Wallaby to play in back-to-back Lions series.
Hastings: He played 12 years ago? That's extraordinary. That kind of knocks what I've said on the head!
SCMP: How are Australia shaping up?
Gregan: It was disappointing last year the amount of injuries we had, but it was probably balanced by the fact you could see they were playing for each other … so if they can build on that and get the full complement of players, that core group probably for the last three to four years so they should be able to get back in their groove reasonably quickly. That's going to be the big thing, it's three massive test matches over three consecutive weekends, so it's the team that can back up physically and mentally from the last performance … it becomes as much a mental challenge as well.
SCMP: Who'll be the key men?
Gregan: Last year Will Genia was injured, Quade Cooper was in and out of the team. James O'Connor didn't play at all, Kurtley Beale was playing at the back of the full-back. If we can get those guys on the field in attack, guys like James Horwill is a key part of the team - they've beaten some of the best teams in the world and have been a very dangerous team. That's the challenge, making sure you get your best on the field is key.
SCMP: How big a loss is David Pocock?
Gregan: He's a huge loss, he's an incredible player, one of the best No7s in the world and he's been there for a number of years. But it's funny how things pan out. Georgie Smith made himself available for the Brumbies having been in Japan; Pocock plays for the Brumbies and gets injured and now George could take his place. But last year, with Pocock injured I thought Michael Hooper was fantastic and Liam Gill, so we've got a plethora of good young No7s, but to have someone like George Smith enter stage left, I think we'll be able to cope.
SCMP: I imagine the Six Nations might have altered your probable XV a lot, Gavin?
Hastings: Absolutely right, my selection's changed a lot. There's no question I would choose different players now than before the tournament. I think the Wales-England result was significant and what that essentially means is that there will be quite a number of Welshmen that will make the trip. There's no doubt that on their day they are very fine rugby players and it's up to everybody else to aspire to the standards they have reached.
SCMP: Who's played their way into the reckoning?
Hastings: I think [Leigh] Halfpenny for Wales was one of the standout players in the Six Nations, his goalkicking is just extraordinary. He hits a ball towards goal the way that Rory or Tiger hit the ball off the tee. He's been outstanding and he's an absolute shoo-in. Mike Phillips, the half-back, played very well for Wales and he was terrific, particularly last week. I've been impressed with Chris Robshaw's leadership but I felt if England were not to win the grand slam there might be a question over his suitability to captain the Lions, and I maintain that. There could be somebody who is going to captain the Lions who has not captained their country in the Six Nations and that's very interesting. It could be [Sam] Warburton, it could be O'Driscoll, it could be another Welshman, it could be somebody a bit like Martin Johnson in 1997 who comes out of nowhere.
SCMP: How important is the captain?
Hastings: I happen to believe it is an important role, it's a figurehead, it's a tradition, and in the absolute ideal world your captain would be nailed on for the test side. If I was asked to plump for someone, I would pick Warburton. He's a fine rugby player and would certainly have the respect of all the Welsh guys and no one would doubt he's worthy of a place in the test side.
SCMP: How tough will it be for the tourists, especially with the Australian media keen to add to the pressure?
Gregan: I think when you're playing away you always feel that us-against-them mentality, and I know the Australian press has done that in the past. But it's a dangerous game, I don't think there'll be anything coming from the Wallabies camp in terms of stoking the rivalry.
Hastings: Campo [David Campese] won't keep quiet for long, will he?
Gregan: On the eve of that first test in 2001 it sounded like there were divisions among the Lions, players supposedly didn't want to play with each other, but they galvanised around that and played amazingly and there was obviously a strong spirit in that playing squad. You've just got to be careful, even more so today with social media, people tweeting stuff. Often it's just one player's point of view but it's out there, it's instant and it can have an impact on the team.
SCMP: What does it take to win in Australia?
Hastings: You need everybody bang into the programme, believing that they can do it. They need a good slice of luck, they need to keep players injury-free and you need to build momentum also through the midweek side. In 1989 we had a guy called Donal Lenihan. He knew he was probably just slightly over the hill, but he basically took charge of the midweek side and said: "Right lads, we are going through this tour undefeated. I'm going to be leading you guys. Every time you guys are coming on you're playing for me, you're playing for the jersey and you're playing for the rest of the guys." He established a spirit within the camp and it was the same in 1997 when the Lions were successful in South Africa. We haven't won a test series since then, it's been a long old time and George won't agree, but I think for the sake of the Lions it's very important they win this series.
SCMP: If they lost four in a row …?
Hastings: The levels of money that we're talking about, these tours don't come cheap. It's very significant in terms of the whole interest, the media interest is massive and the Lions as a brand are absolutely enormous. I think if it comes down to the Lions winning in the third test, from everyone's point of view that would be absolutely fantastic.
Gregan: For everyone in your part of the world. But I'll be backing you big time in the next series.
Hastings: Against New Zealand, that's very kind, George.
Gregan: Talking about that long time without a win, I remember bumping into Brian O'Driscoll last year. He was saying how much he'd like to win one, having played in three losing sides. You're talking about captains. I just sense that if he got on and he's fit and healthy and playing well, for that very reason he'd be a great candidate to lead because it'll be his last one.
Hastings: He'd only have to play a couple of games before the first test and if the Lions won the first two tests, potentially he could only have to play four games. Anyone can do that, particularly if he's going to get a few weeks off over his stamping citation. He could easily get himself up for that and it would be a fairy tale.
SCMP: Favourite memories of those two previous Lions tours to Australia?
Gregan: Some anecdotes might not be suitable and I'll stay away from the on-field banter, because that's where it should stay. But after the first test when we lost in Brisbane, as a team you do the walk of shame on to the team bus, surrounded by Lions fans dressed in red. There's these fans - good natured, that's the great thing about the Lions - saying, 'George, George, do you want to hear our new song? No-one sings in Australia, here's one for you.' They start singing, 'Waltzing O'Driscoll, Waltzing O'Driscoll' and they've even made up verses.
We had to smile even through our disappointment because he had played absolutely out of his skin. That was a real eye-opener for the Australians on how to support a team - although we're still bad singers.
Hastings: We came into the first test and were feeling very confident and the Aussies came out and absolutely kicked our a***s. For me, the abiding memory of that day was our team manager, a gregarious Welshman called Clive Rowlands who had played for Wales many times. He called everybody on the tour into the changing room, everybody squeezing to get in. He had his Lions blazer on and he said [Hastings puts on a decent Welsh accent]: "Right boys, we've taken a backwards step today. But from now on, we're not taking another backwards step and the badge - it's only going to get bigger!" Quite honestly I think there was a sense of commitment he instilled there within just 20 minutes or an hour of the game finishing … it's funny how little moments, like that and the Donal Lenihan story, bring a tour together.
You can talk about the pints that you drank, and the fun that you had, but ultimately, the result was the important thing, even in the heady days of amateur rugby.
For these guys - they have the opportunity to create history, to become only the fifth Lions side ever to win a test series. They have this amazing opportunity, I'd love to be a part of that, it would be magical, and that's what makes it so exciting.
Gavin Hastings and George Gregan are ambassadors for HSBC, sponsors of the Lions tour