Sir Ian McGeechan says there is no such thing as a ‘nailed-on’ Lion ahead of Warren Gatland’s squad announcement on Thursday.
Gatland will lead his third consecutive tour when he takes the best of Britain and Ireland to South Africa over the summer, and the 57-year-old will have had plenty of selection headaches over the past few weeks and months as he mulls the best way to topple Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks.
Players such as Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Hogg and Maro Itoje are thought to be near-enough guaranteed tourists, but McGeechan – who has more experience with the Lions than any other player or coach – says such a thing does not exist for the invitational side.
“I don’t think there is as a player,” McGeechan told Sky Sports about the prospect of a nailed-on Lion. “You always hope that you’ve had a good Six Nations, or you’ve been on a tour before and played well.
“You never expect it. You always hope that you’ll be in the front line, but I think when you hear your name, there is that buzz through which does make it very special.”
None of the players – bar perhaps the captain – will know for sure before the squad announcement is made that they have made it, with Jamie Roberts describing the day before as the slowest day in a rugby player’s career.
McGeechan says even players who are playing well and have been on a Lions tour before will feel the same nerves as the younger players ahead of the official announcement.
“There will be a bit of nervousness; the anticipation and excitement of knowing whether you’re in it or not,” McGeechan said.
“The way it’s done, you don’t get any pre-call or understanding of where you might be. There is that great anticipation. They will probably be at home listening in or watching on Sky to see what the squad make-up is.
📵 | “I had a missed call the night before, I didn’t recognize the number so I let it go!”
Ahead of tomorrow’s British and Irish Lions squad announcement, here’s a look back at Paul O’Connell being revealed as skipper back in 2009…🦁🏉 pic.twitter.com/i6lQ2Qs7cS
— Sky Sports Rugby Union (@SkySportsRugby) May 5, 2021
“If you’re on a second tour… you still have that anticipation, even though you’ve got a tour under your belt. Because of the way it’s announced, you never know until your name is actually read out.
“So they will still be nervous and a bit excited, but also looking forward to knowing what is expected of you and the challenges that a Lions tour brings.
“You can’t get away from the anticipation that goes with a Lions announcement.”
The Lions will have a job on their hands beating the world champions, a challenge McGeechan knows all too well as he led the team to a 2-1 series win over the Springboks in 1997, two years after they had won the World Cup in their own back yard.
Asked for his standout memory as coach over the years, McGeechan said: “Final whistle in Durban in 1997, sat with Jim (Telfer).
“We knew it was a pretty special moment. If you’re going to win a series in South Africa, a lot of things have had to go right and you’ve had to have a very good group of players, which they were.
“Not just good players but good people. So to see them win it, and know how it feels, meant a lot.”
Day before Lions squad named is ‘slowest in player’s career’
Jamie Roberts described the “brutal” day before a Lions squad announcement as the slowest in a rugby player’s career.
Roberts went on the 2009 tour of South Africa and the 2013 tour of Australia, but in 2017 fell agonisingly short of being selected to tour New Zealand.
“It’s brutal,” Roberts said. “It’s like the night before Christmas but you’re not guaranteed happiness the next day.
“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been on two tours, but four years ago was brutal.
“There are going to be some brilliant players who miss out tomorrow and it’s really hard for those guys but that’s the way it should be – this is about the cream of the crop.
“This is about the players Warren Gatland will feel can beat the Springboks, and unfortunately with that amount of quality, some brilliant players are going to miss out on selection.
“It’s very nerve-wracking. Today is probably one of the slowest days in your rugby career – it goes so, so slowly.”
Roberts says a large number of players will have received a ‘save the date’ letter, but adds that those selected do not know whether or not they have made it until the official announcement is made.
“The players don’t have a clue,” he said. “I think the Lions send out letters or emails to the majority of players who are in consideration, but that probably tops 60 or 70 people and obviously the squad is 36 players.
“The majority of players playing international rugby during the Six Nations would have had that email because they are likely to be in consideration, but the players don’t find out beforehand.
“I remember back in 2009 I drove my old battered Rover 100 down to Penarth Pier just down the road from me here in Cardiff and sat listening on the radio to the squad being announced.
“I didn’t have a clue I was touring, then you hear your name read out and it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
When is the squad announced?
Gatland and his coaching staff will unveil the 36-man touring squad on Thursday, as well as reveal who will captain the invitational side as they aim to avenge the 2-1 series defeat of 2009.
The announcement will be shown live on Sky Sports Mix and on Sky Sports’ YouTube channel from 11.45am, but you can also keep up to date with all the news by following our live blog throughout the morning.
There will be plenty of reaction in our live blog and on Sky Sports News throughout the day, and at 6pm there will be a Lions Announcement Special on Sky Sports Mix and Sky Sports Arena – as well as our dedicated YouTube channel – where the newly appointed Lions captain will join coach Gatland in giving their thoughts on the upcoming tour.
Host Alex Payne will also be speaking to three-time Lions tourist Will Greenwood as well as South Africa legend Bryan Habana, who was part of the team that beat the Lions in 2009.
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