Gregor Townsend reveals Lions’ team bonding session which has echoes of 1997

A boozy pub session has been credited for propelling the British and Irish Lions to victory over South Africa in 1997 and Warren Gatland’s men have adopted a similar approach to uniting rival nations.

Gregor Townsend has revealed that the Lions’ Jersey training camp has seen the effort on the practice field complimented by a lively social side culminating in a noisy alcohol-fuelled Saturday night.

Townsend sees parallels with an evening in Weybridge 24 years ago when Lions manager Fran Cotton took Martin Johnson’s men to a local pub, placed his credit card behind the bar and issued orders to enjoy themselves.

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The bonds formed that week in Surrey are viewed by those who were there as laying the foundations for a famous 2-1 series win over the Springboks that was directed at fly-half by Townsend.

“There was a lot of chat about the night we had in the Weybridge pub. It was the night before we left,” the Lions attack coach said.

“I still remember sitting with Mark Regan at the bar at 2am in the morning. I just couldn’t stop laughing listening to him. That’s how bonds are formed. And we’ve seen that with this group so far.

“We’ve been to a couple of restaurants, but it’s been more back at the hotel where we’ve been having those periods together in the team room.

“There were a few things going on that meant there were stories the next day. Good to see coaches and players chatting together. There were songs being sung – and we didn’t do that in 1997.

“I believe it’s been a big reason for Warren’s success as a coach. He understands that and he facilitates that.

“It was genius going to Jersey and being able to use a really good training facility but being away from one of the nations where there are distractions at home, being on an island where there are less Covid restrictions.

“Even though we’ve had to stay in a hotel pretty much, it’s been great for bringing people together.”

The focus switches from conditioning and bonding to actually playing when the tour launches against Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday, a fixture that acts as the curtain-raiser to the campaign in South Africa.

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The Brave Blossoms have named 10 survivors from their World Cup final quarter-final defeat by South Africa, including captain Michael Leitch, and Townsend views them as formidable first opposition.

“We’ve got to get the minimum requirement of a really good test against Japan. They’re a team that will move us around,” Townsend said.

“They’re an international side – this must be the hardest opening game of any Lions tour.

“For the Argentina game played in 2005, I believe it was their second team that played, but this is primarily the Japan team that got to the quarter-final of the World Cup.

“So it’s a massive challenge first up. You want to see combinations out there and 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.”