The raw emotion of a late-night selection meeting on the eve of the announcement of a British and Irish Lions squad still resonates with Sir Ian McGeechan.
The 66-year-old Scot, more than anyone, knows the full extent of the pressure and responsibility facing Warren Gatland and his fellow Lions coaches when they assemble today for a final meeting to confirm the 36 or 37 names that will travel to Australia for the 10-game tour next month.
Four years ago, when Gatland was also one of McGeechan’s assistant coaches finalising the squad bound for South Africa ran long into the night.
“I ended up telling everyone to sleep on it,” recalled McGeechan, who was also head coach for the tours to Australia (1989), New Zealand (1993) and South Africa (1997). “We didn’t make the final call until the morning of the announcement. So often the decisions are about gut instincts and sometimes it is important to check that feeling is still there the next morning.
“Selecting the Lions squad is the toughest job in coaching but it is also the greatest job. You are always so aware of the responsibility that goes with selecting players from four different countries. You have to get it right, you want four countries to be smiling.”
Gatland may have begun his selection process six months ago, but McGeechan expects it to go to the wire again tonight.
“I think the coaches will have taken a long look at the squad since Christmas, and from the end of the Six Nations they will have had the top 25 or so sorted.
“Four years ago I had four players pencilled in for each position before the start of the Six Nations and then made the odd adjustment according to form and injury.
“The last month will have been about taking a really hard look about the last 10 to 12 players as in many ways those are the selections that can really make the tour.
“Warren will have been looking at how players react to the big pressure situations and the Heineken Cup matches this weekend will have given the players one last chance to press their claims.
“Selection is a personal thing for a coach and he will have his own feel about the different players and combinations he is after.”
It has not always been like this. For the 1993 tour, McGeechan’s input to the selection meeting was of a far more limited nature as the party was selected by a committee drawn from the four nations. It inevitably led to an element of horse-trading.
“That was the only tour when I had some players in the squad that I wouldn’t have selected,” McGeechan added. "That changed in 1997 when myself, Jim [Telfer, forwards coach] and Fran [Cotton, tour manager], sat down together and assembled the squad. We had four watchers who did a lot of video analysis for us. The game had only just gone professional and we ended up picking players from the Wales A squad. There is much less opportunity these days to pick wild cards.”
It was the selection of his captain for that tour, Martin Johnson, that proved to be the Lions pick that gave McGeechan the greatest satisfaction of all. Johnson had yet to captain his country, or even his club side Leicester, when McGeechan asked him to lead the tour to South Africa. McGeechan wanted a player who would give him a figurehead for the tour with a physical presence to face down the Springboks and his gut instinct led him to Johnson.
“Not many people saw it coming,” said McGeechan, of his decision to make Johnson his tour captain. “He was a player that I respected greatly and had the strength of character to lead the tour. He did that magnificently.
“The selection of the captain is a very personal decision for the coach. He has to be able to trust him and have a strong relationship.”
It appears that Gatland shares that sentiment, given that he is expected to name Sam Warburton as his captain tomorrow. Gatland first made Warburton his Wales captain for the 2011 World Cup.
The rest of the tour party will only learn of their selection when Gatland names his squad to the public at 11am tomorrow, a policy that McGeechan agrees with.
“We did the same in 2009,” added McGeechan. “The only person I told before the announcement was the captain Paul O’Connell. I spent the day with him talking about my vision for the Lions and how I felt we could beat South Africa. He was superb. He started reading books about the history of the Lions and I knew I had a player who was totally committed to the tour. I made one other phone call to Brian O’Driscoll, who was O’Connell’s captain at Ireland at the time and had also been Lions captain in 2005. I felt I owed him that call and he was great about it. He said he wanted to phone Paul to congratulate him but I said ‘hang on, I need to tell him first!’
“I think it is right that all but the captain aren’t told before the announcement. I feel it adds to the mystique and sense of occasion.”