The slogan on the T-shirts of the airport helpers at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg read: ‘Welcome to Springbok Country.’ And having watched the 1997 Lions tour documentary, ‘Living with Lions’, on the flight over, Stephen Ferris is straining at the leash to get stuck into the World champions.
‘Air Force Scrum’, the aptly-named British Airways plane, transferred the Lions from London to Johannesburg on an 11-hour overnight flight.
Arriving on Monday, the players had a light recovery session in the pool before appearing at Moyo Zoo Lake for a specially-arranged welcoming event.
Today (Tuesday) saw Ian McGeechan and his coaches take charge of a full contact session at St. David’s School in Johannesburg, as the tourists crank things up for their opening game against a Royal XV in Rustenburg next Saturday (kick-off 3pm local time/2pm Irish time).
With many of the players having undertaken altitude training over the past number of weeks, including last week’s training stint at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, adapting to the Johannesburg air – at more than 2,000 metres above sea level – should not prove too much of a problem.
First-time tourist Stephen Ferris worked out in acclimatisation chambers at Pennyhill and the University of Ulster, Jordanstown in the lead-up to the squad’s departure.
“Normal air is around 21 per cent whereas in the chamber we were able to get it down to around 13 per cent,” Ferris explained.
“We have been working hard at it, for sessions of around 30 minutes to get ourselves used to it.
“I suffered a dead leg while playing for Ulster against Connacht so I did a bit of boxing and cycling and was able to get onto the treadmill towards the end of the week.
“Running definitely is the hardest exercise in there but it was good to get that boxing element in as well, because it is going to rough on the pitch as well. It worked up a good sweat.”
Much of the pre-tour focus has been on Paul O’Connell, the second successive Irishman to captain the Lions.
Ferris is fully behind O’Connell’s appointment but also acknowledges that there are plenty of leaders in camp to take the pressure off the Munsterman in certain situations.
“Paulie will bring the same elements to the Lions as he does to Ireland.
Himself and Brian (O’Driscoll) get on really well and they shared the workload a good bit during the Six Nations. I think they’ll perform a similar role here.
“Paul’s a great motivator, geeing guys up and leading from the front and all the guys here will feed off that. I know I certainly do.
“Brian is a bit quieter, he plays an important role with every team he plays for. And guys like Phil Vickery have also been influential already on the tour.”
One of the criticisms of the 2005 tour which saw the Lions lose the series 3-0 to New Zealand was that it was too intense, there were too many players on board and that team-bonding and the fun element of touring, so evident during the amateur era, was kept to a minimum.
The preparatory week in Surrey for the 2009 Lions certainly helped with the bonding process and the fact that the players are mixed and matched in the rooming stakes – O’Connell was rooming with Shane Williams in Surrey while Tommy Bowe was put with Stephen Jones – means they are gelling together already.
“We’ve just been meeting all the guys and getting to know them. It’s just brilliant all the countries coming together and the team atmosphere is fantastic – I thought it would be much harder – but everyone gets along,’ Ferris added.
“We’ve been working hard at training sessions, but there has also been time for some rest. Recovery will be vital on a longer tour.
“We’ve also had time to have fun, we’ve all stood up and told the guys about ourselves – whether we have kids, talked about our girlfriends or wives and so on.
“We’ve relaxed and have been for a few quiet beers. We also watched the Leinster game which was great.”