Me and the Lions

There is something very special about a Lions tour, and despite my on-the-field melt down, I made some great friends, and learnt a huge amount about myself and my rugby. It was exactly the kick up the arse that I needed to realise that I did want to carry on playing and that I was not the centre of the Universe (something that I still struggle with from time to time!)

Not surprisingly there is a huge amount of Lions talk flying around at the moment, all a little premature, but nonetheless fun! I thought with all the Lions talk I should respond to some allegations about my own view on the Lions, and my poor involvement.

To give you a starting point, this piece seems to sum up Ian McGeechan's view on my Lions career.

Go all the way back to 1989 - the tour Ian McGeechan thinks I might have taken my bat home from - and the explanation is very different. England had gone warm weather training in the January of that year to Lanzarote, and there on the track I first felt some real pain in my shin. Obviously I kept training and playing, I had only just been made captain of England, and I wasn't going to give it up for anyone!

The trouble was the pain did not go away, in fact it kept getting stronger and eventually I went for an x-ray to find that I had a stress fracture of the shin. I was determined to carry on playing the Five Nations (as it was then) and did so with the help of bugger all training in between matches. Sadly I was told by the England surgeon that there was no way I could tour with the Lions if selected as I just had to let the large stress fracture heal or risk serious injury.

I find it strange that McGeechan ignores that fact, when it is certainly the case that he would have been told this through the official channels. So no sulking in '89, just one pissed off young man who was not allowed to tour.

1993 was a different story. So much sulking it was frightening, but possibly not for the reasons that many of you are thinking. To give a little background, when I was made captain of England, the players who got me through it were my schoolboy heroes - the likes of Winterbottom, Teague, Dooley etc. They tolerated this young 22-year-old who had no idea what he was doing, covered up most of my weaknesses with their experience and ability and allowed me to survive at International level.

It is impossible for me to explain what they meant to me - still mean to me - as my vocabulary is nowhere near sufficient. Suffice it to say, I was distraught when a large group of them announced that they would be retiring after the '93 Lions tour. It put my mind in turmoil, as I really was not sure whether I wanted to carry on playing for England if they were not in the team. Very juvenile I know, very immature, but then I was still quite young!

So it was in this frame of mind that I headed out on the '93 tour. My honest opinion is that I should not have made the first Test, and was certainly in no position to argue being dropped for the next two tests. But being spoilt and having never been dropped from a sports team in my life up till then, my dummy ricocheted around my hotel room!

Mike Teague took me out for a drink, and we were sitting at the bar, pretty silent when in walked Peter Winterbottom. He wondered over and sat next to Mike, quietly drinking his beer. Eventually I spoke: "Come on then Wints, what's your problem? You haven't spoken to me for the last two weeks, so what is it all about?"

It took him about another minute before he eventually replied: "You've been shit".

He has always been a straight talking Yorkshire man, but even for him that was quite blunt!

"Oh thanks a lot, just what I needed to hear", I squealed.

"Well you have been".

Further silence, and then the killer line: "And I had told people down here that you were good. I told them that you would impress them, and you have just been shit".

And I had been. Absolutely no doubt about it. I had played really badly, I had behaved like a petulant teenager, and I had let all manner of people down. My only defence was that having eventually found my dummy in the corner of my hotel room, I played two games for the 'dirt trackers' and I would like to think they were my two best games for a while. We did not win, but at least I had some pride in the shirt, and had for the first time given my all for the team.

And the greatest moment of the tour for me, was when after the second of these two games, I was slumped up against a wall in the changing room, Peter Winterbottom sat down next to me.

"Mate, I think you have earned more respect from your teammates today than you have in countless games for England".

It meant a huge amount and still does, slightly more than McGeechan's comments, as it is from a man who actually knew me. Not that I can argue with McGeechan's view of my '93 tour. It is my biggest regret in rugby, and the regret is not that I did not get more test caps on that tour that in a way is totally irrelevant, it is the regret that I did not do myself justice, as a player or teammate. Both are inexcusable, hence the deep regret.

And lastly to answer McGeechan's view on the 1997 tour and the accusation that I just turned it down. For any with long memories, I resigned as England captain in 1996, and in my mind, I hoped that maybe I would get one season to play alongside Jerry Guscott and enjoy the possibility of playing without the pressure of captaincy.

Jack Rowell promptly went and announced Phil de Glanville as captain, so in my mind there went any chance of playing for England for one more year let alone playing alongside Jerry! Jack surprised everyone by picking Phil and myself, so I got my last year, just not alongside Jerry. And during that season I could feel I was on wind down, it was all just losing it's vice like grip on my life and my world, and my last game for England in Cardiff was the most relaxed that I have ever been on an International rugby field.

So when I got a call from Fran Cotton to talk about the forthcoming Lions, it really made me think long and hard. I was still painfully aware that I had been a huge let down on the '93 tour, and now I knew deep down that I was done as far as International rugby is concerned. There was talk of captaincy and there really isn't a greater honour than that for a Northern Hemisphere player and it was hugely tempting. But I kept coming back to the stark truth that I had lost the fire, and if I had lost the fire with England, could I really expect it to burn again for the Lions. It might well sound like an excuse, but if it does, please consider this. I could have gone on the 1997 Lions tour, I might well have been the captain, and what a great way to end a career. But, and this was the big but, I really knew that I would not be of any use. I am a believer that once the edge has gone, it is gone and nothing you can do will bring it back - look at the long list of failed comebacks by sportsmen and women.

I was also trying to do the right thing by the Lions, and yes myself, having done such a wrong thing by them in '93. So yes it does hurt when I read McGeechan's comments, especially as I explained in detail my worries and feelings to Fran Cotton about the '97 tour, and the press would never have known if it had not been leaked, and the leak was strangely not from me.

There is something very special about a Lions tour, and despite my on-the-field melt down, I made some great friends, and learnt a huge amount about myself and my rugby. It was exactly the kick up the arse that I needed to realise that I did want to carry on playing and that I was not the centre of the Universe (something that I still struggle with from time to time!)

My lifelong dream was to play for England, and when I was made captain, my total focus was on wanting us to be successful, to win, to lose that tag of also-ran's in the Five Nations. I am sure that this focus and obsession made me less that popular amongst other countries' supporters, and the players. But my priority was England, that is who I had the honour to play for and captain, and that is who I would do whatever it took for.

I have tried to outline my mental state for the 93 tour, and add a large spoonful of immaturity and petulance, the outcome was not a huge surprise. But McGeechan is wrong to think that I did not 'get' the Lions and that I did not care. I was crap in '93, no doubt about it, but not down to lack of 'Lionship', down to a whole host of other reasons that I allowed to cloud my playing ability. And I would say to McGeechan, the reason that I was so honest and frank about the 1997 tour and my view that I just was not good enough anymore to go or captain, was far more to do with not wanting to let the shirt down again rather than not caring. If I had not cared, then of course I could have swaggered off into the sunset as a Lions captain, albeit probably a losing one, but a Lions captain none the less. I do think I had grown up enough in those four years to know that much as I would have loved to do it, to have gone; very sadly I just did not have anything else to give for them.


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