Lions share of thinking already focused on 2017

John Spencer, current Wharfedale president who will be the British Lions Tour manager when they head to Australia in 2017. Picture: Gerard Binks.
John Spencer, current Wharfedale president who will be the British Lions Tour manager when they head to Australia in 2017. Picture: Gerard Binks.
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MOST people involved in rugby union, invariably, already have one eye on the 2015 World Cup.

It is inevitable given the sheer enormity of the tournament which arrives here on these shores in a little over 10 months.

The prospects it holds for players and coaches alike, the stakes being so high, aligned to the thrills and expectancy of fans, mean it is hard not to start counting down the days.

Yet Yorkshireman John Spencer finds himself in the peculiar position of looking ahead and preparing for an event not just one year from now but almost three.

The ex-England captain, who at the age of 67 has fulfilled a vast range of roles in the sport to which he has dedicated his life, is readying himself for his next major assignment – as 2017 British Lions tour manager for the greatest and most arduous of such odysseys: New Zealand.

Therefore, when the Autumn Internationals start in a week, and England host the revered All Blacks at Twickenham, his mind will not only focus on the 80 minutes ahead, and the prospect of perhaps facing the same opponents in a World Cup final 12 months later.

His thoughts, undoubtedly, will occasionally turn to the next batch of red-shirted masses tackling New Zealand in Christchurch, Wellington or Dunedin and potentially securing a series success there for the first time since he toured as a young centre in the heady and heroic days of 1971.

“It is a strange situation,” says Spencer, who played on that famous, victorious tour to New Zealand and has been on the Lions’ board of directors for the last six years.

“But we do have to start looking at selection of staff now, if not players and coaches.

“I’m talking about people like the operations director and communications manager.

“These guys are my right-hand men and we have to sort out well in advance the venues, order of fixtures, look at travel arrangements, hotels, training venues, press conference venues and so many things like that.

“And in New Zealand accommodation is a big problem.

“I was there in 2011 for the World Cup, but not a lot had changed since I was there 40 years earlier with the Lions.

“Christchurch has a problem, too, because of the earthquake there and the temporary stadium is too small for Test rugby.

“We have to do a good job to give the squad the best chance of success and we’ll be arranging things a long time beforehand.

“We will be looking at everything from doctors, physios, security men, analysts... all things you need in the pro’ game.

“You even have chefs, dieticians – there’s a room full of supplements like concentrated beetroot juice – and players are all on different diets so we’ll be looking at that team over the next couple of years and then the real selection of coaches and players come in the last 12 months.”

Sir Clive Woodward, who was head coach for the last Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005 which infamously ended in farce and an embarrassing whitewash, was ridiculed at the time for, among many other things, spending a great deal of money on such a vast support staff.

However, Spencer maintains lessons have been heeded from that tour.

“The lack of success on the 2005 tour Clive Woodward took was notorious so what we’ve done is tried to change plenty.

“We learned a lot from that and certainly a lot on how not to tour. We’ve gone back to some traditional old-fashioned values which we think are very important and work for us.

“We nearly won in 2009 in South Africa and those values certainly played a big part in why we did win in Australia last year.

“One example is the integration of the players making them all feel they’re part of one team and all have opportunity to play Test rugby and all equally important whether they play Test rugby or not.

“I didn’t play Test rugby on the Lions’ tour in ‘71 because the skipper was in my position and you’re not going to drop your skipper on a Lions tour.

“But I played a lot of Saturday rugby and was helping with one or two others keeping guys together. It wasn’t hard.”

Spencer, a centre who shone with Headingley before going on to win 14 England caps between 1969 and 1971, leading his country on four occasions, remains imbued with the famous Lions spirit and ethos.

Recollecting that famous tour, he says: “I was 23 then and the most memorable thing for me was I was one of only five Englishmen and quite young.

“Yes, I was the England captain at the time but still quite young.

“There was a good team of senior professionals which is absolutely vital to any tour.

“We had the likes of Gareth Edwards, Willie John McBride, JPR Williams and Mervyn Davies plus Gerald Davies and Mike Gibson, some fantastic players.

“It was an amazing team that just came together at the right time and I think we were lucky that we caught the All Blacks rebuilding with some guys still playing but over the top, like Colin Meads.

“The other abiding memory is, of course, winning – the only Lions tour ever to do so in New Zealand, which is quite something.

“When you’re 23 and fighting your battles out there – 26 matches, three and a half months – you get carried away and it’s only over the next 40 years you suddenly realise what you’ve done.

“I never would have imagined that we’d still be waiting now for it to happen again.

“But it has proved to be the toughest challenge in the sport.”

There is a feeling that there could be some symmetry in 2017 with ‘71 – the current world champion All Black team may well be in transition then, too, with Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Conrad Smith all nearing the end of stellar careers.

Spencer, meanwhile, is still involved at Wharfedale, the National One club where he is president.

His home in Threshfield actually overlooks their evocative ground in the Yorkshire Dales and he says: “I’ve always had a passion for Yorkshire rugby and this is the club I started at as a young lad.

“My father played here and my uncle and my grandfather lived in the village when it was founded so I’m third generation Grassington/Threshfield.

“It’s very dear to my heart and the club has a unique passion.

“I love the quality of the rugby in the third level, too.

“I think it’s better than the Championship even though they are a good deal above us.

“It’s more attractive to watch and more sympathetic to the spectator.

“But with the Lions we have an opportunity to retain some of the romance of the sport.

“By that I mean the Lions is important to people at Wharfedale, North Ribblesdale and Wath-on-Dearne or Dungannon and Cloontagh in Ireland, Troon in Scotland, Colwyn Bay in Wales…

“All Lions players originally came from a mini-section from a small club so they can’t afford to forget their roots.

“When we get to New Zealand, we’ll identify ourselves with the community game over there, we’ll be coaching minis, we’ll be going to schools, visiting hospitals and getting out there.

“We won’t be an arrogant untouchable force. We will be a Lions unit.”