He’s been there, done that and got the ice-skates. Former Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas has pretty much done it all. In an exclusive column for the Paddy Power Blog, he looks at the team-bonding process and why the Lions will beat the Barbarians by 20 points
The first few days of the Lions tour are strange. There’s no other way to describe it. You all meet up and straight away you’re into a lot of the team-bonding exercises. The usual stuff – splitting up into groups, going away, being given specific challenges to do, like Crystal Maze outdoor pursuit stuff. I thought it was absolute bullshit, but you understand why have to go through it to get closer to your team-mates.
The thing is, even though everyone in the back of their minds is thinking ‘what is the fucking point of this?’ you know you have to get stuck into it because everything you do on the tour is being watched. You want to do your best because everything you do is potentially make or break for a potential Lions Test jersey. Everything you’re asked to do you do whether you like it or not.
It makes sense because the natural thing that happens is you end up sticking to the people you know. The Welsh boys sticking with the Welsh boys, the English boys together and all that. When you walk into a room, you’re natural tendency is to spot where your mates are and sit down with them. The coaches have to throw in things that will get you out of your comfort zone and get you moving in different circles.
The Beer Necessities
It’s the strangest thing having conversations and forming bonds with guys who you’ve only ever shook hands with after a game and you’ve been trying to hurt badly for the previous three years! All of a sudden, you’re standing in a room with them and you’ve got to try to get on with them.
I always felt that the best thing we ever did – and I know it sounds totally amateur, but I’m sure it’ll happen this time around – is shut a door, get a shedload of beer in and everyone sits down, has a drink, let’s their guard down a bit and opens up to other people. That’s the best way I found of getting to know people. You’ve got your safety blanket of your 10 other Welsh mates in the corner, but if you’ve had a drink or two and you’ve got a bit of Dutch courage, you’ll go over to the Irish lads or the Scottish lads and getting chatting to them. For me, it was just an easy way of letting your barriers down and starting to mingle with everybody else.
Being a Welshman, one of the things I found weird was how well I got on with just about every one of the English players. There’s such a rivalry between the Welsh and the English – or the English and anyone for that matter – that I never realised until we were on tour what a bunch of cool guys they were. Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio, William Greenwood, Matt Dawson – they were guys I only ever faced in the context of this fierce rivalry. I never really wanted to get to know them because of the rivalry, but being on the Lions tour, I found myself gelling with the English guys and a lot of the Welsh guys felt exactly the same. When you think about our rugby upbringing, it just seems like the strangest thing that could have happened.
The friend of the hostilities
I got really friendly with Matt Dawson. It was an odd thing because as I player, I always wanted to get at him during a match. I always thought you could get under his skin, but then I found out what an awesome bloke he was.
I played the English lads a couple of times after the Lions tour and it was a little bit different. Whereas before I was focussed on smashing them, before the match I’d look over and give them a nod or say hello. Then when the match started, it was normal service resumes. When you’re in the Millennium Stadium and you’ve got 80,000 people going crazy, the friendship takes a back seat and you go hell for leather. They end up being friendships for life because you have this shared experience – you’ve been on tour, you’ve played together, you’ve been through it all and you end up forging a stronger bond.
You’ve Gat’ to give it all under Warren
Warren Gatland is a big stickler for the training pitch and he will be working on what he wants from day one. The boys who’ve been in Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect Pro12 finals have the advantage of playing up until recently, but the guys who didn’t have the advantage of training under Warren. It’s hard to overstate how intently Warren watches training. He takes a lot out of what happens on the training pitch because his way of thinking is ‘if you’ve got a good mind-set on the training pitch and you give it everything, imagine what you’ll do in a match situation’.
The competition for places starts as soon as the squad is announced. A player wouldn’t be on a Lions Tour if he wasn’t competitive. That doesn’t affect how you interact with those guys off the pitch, but on the field that rivalry is constant.
If you’re in training and you get the chance to get one over on a rival you wouldn’t be worthy of a Lions jersey if you didn’t take that opportunity
Under Clive Woodward on the 2005 Tour, we didn’t do too much physical work and I didn’t get the chance to rip into one of the guys going for my position, but if I was watching one of my rivals for a Test place from the stands and he had an outstanding game on Wednesday, you needed to make sure you have an even more outstanding game on the Saturday. There’s a cycle of competitiveness and that’s what’s so good about it. All these players are in direct competition with each other for the one jersey so it’s not a bad thing to say ‘I want that jersey and I will fight for it’.
Against the Barbarians, I’m expecting a win.
Gareth’s bet v the Barbarians:
The Tests are the be all and end all, but these games are massively important. The squad need to develop a winning mentally and a good performance in defeat just doesn’t cut it. Winning becomes a habit and losing can become a habit so it’s vital that the Lions kick off the tour with a win. Winning is everything. You get remembered for winning.
The competition for places should dictate that this is a strong performance. Players who maybe see themselves as being down the pecking order have a chance to get noticed and I’m hoping for a performance with the intensity to match that. Every minute of this tour – whether it be on the training field or the game field – it’s really important to impress with the ultimate goal being getting a Test place.
Picking a result is tricky. You’ve got a new team coming together with the Lions, but you’ve got a slightly less new team coming together in the Barbarians. All we know about the Baabaas is that they’ll play open rugby and that could play into the Lions’ hands. Looking at the team named, I would say the Lions are capable of winning by a comfortable 20 points (Lions -20 points is 6/4 on the alternative handicap). People might be expecting a slow start, but anyone in this team is playing for a the massive carrot that is a place in the Test team and I would expect that incentive to be worth about 20 points.
Hong Kong – The Hot Topic
I’ve read some criticism of the Lions playing this game in Hong Kong. With the heat and humidity, it doesn’t look like the nicest experience for the players. But rugby turned into a business a long time ago. It has the potential to impact the players, but I doubt it. They’ll be treated with kid gloves – they’ll have the best preparation, they’ll have the best recovery. It may be a bit hot, it may be a bit cold, it may be raining, but at the end of the day, if I was a Lion and I was asked to go and play in the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia against the Baabaas, I’d fucking do it. It’s just such a massive honour you just get on with it.