There’s was no “Everest” speech in the Lions’ dressing room before last week’s first test against South Africa but the coaching team did invoke another classic moment of sporting history, revealed Gregor Townsend.
The Scotland head coach and Lions’ assistant said that the famous “rope-a-dope” from the Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman was used in pre-match discussions.
Speaking at an online fundraising event for the My Name’s Doddie Foundation, supported by the Inside the Tour podcast series, Townsend said that tiring out the Boks was a pre-planned tactic that worked perfectly – the Lions “won” the second half 19-5 on the way to a comeback 22-17 victory.
‘It was how we can drain the energy of the Springboks’
“I don’t think the length of speeches are there like they used to be,” he said, in reference to the famous team talks by Jim Telfer and Sir Ian McGeechan prior to the 1997 tests Townsend played in.
“There’s different ways of communicating now. It’s the use of themes. The theme last week was around (Muhammad) Ali and George Foreman and the Rumble in the Jungle.
“It was how we can drain the energy of the Springboks and then put them away, like Ali did (with rope-a-dope). So you’re trying to get in those connections, engagement in possibly different ways than with the classic speeches of old.”
‘It’s a nice little distraction’
“If we were in the game with 20 minutes to go, I always felt we would win”
Sir Ian McGeechan had complete faith in his team back in 1997 🦁
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) July 28, 2021
Townsend admitted that the Lions have been enjoying the antics of the Springboks’ director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, who has had to deny using a “burner” Twitter account under a false name to put pressure on officials.
“Hilarious,” said Townsend. “I’ve laughed so much this week watching it. It’s great though, it’s a nice little distraction that’s going on.
“I don’t think we ever thought we would be talking about this. It does seem a little bit bizarre, burner Twitter accounts and messages getting sent out. I don’t think I’ve seen that before, it’s unique anyway.”
‘There’s an edge from those not selected’
The Lions’ focus is squarely on the second test, and not making the mistake he felt the Lions made in 1997 after going 1-0 up.
“At this stage of the week, it’s about making sure that the details are there. There was an edge to training on Tuesday. Maybe not as much of an edge as a week ago, but it was still there.
“I think Al (Alun Wyn Jones) got knocked back in one tackle and he went: ‘Okay, that’s what’s happening!’
“That’s what the last two Tuesday’s have been like. The Tuesdays come on the back of the team announcements, so you’re going to get a bit of edge from those not selected.”
‘I don’t want us to wait 60 minutes before going at them’
Although 1997 was “ancient history” Townsend feels there’s something by learned.
“In ’97 we weren’t the better team in that Second Test,” he said. “I felt we were in the last 20 minutes of the game. But we made errors and allowed South Africa to dominate physically and come at us.
“In the last 20 minutes we got back into the game and started going at them, and just got that win. But I don’t want us this weekend to wait until 60 minutes before we start going at them.
“I’ve thought about that for my attack presentation to the team tomorrow (Thursday). I’ll wake up in the morning, and decide whether I’m going to talk about that or not.”
‘There’s no self-pity around him’
Townsend was speaking on the podcast for former Lions legend Doddie Weir, who continues to heroically battle motor neurone disease while raising millions for research.
“He’s inspirational. I can’t believe what he’s doing in the face of such a debilitating disease,” said Gregor. “There’s no self pity around him. You visit him and he wants to have a drink with you, have a laugh and talk about (old) times.
“He’s an inspiration to other people that are suffering from the disease. But he’s done so much more than that. He’s made MND something that everybody in the UK is aware needs to have more funding to finding a cure.
“He’s raised over £7m, and he’s putting that money into research and with a real intent behind it.
“That’s to find a cure, which may not happen in his lifetime, but in the near future.”