I am a sucker for an inspiring team talk. With the announcement of the British and Irish Lions rugby squad for this summer’s tour, I’m put in mind of the greatest team talk of all time. It was delivered by the Lions’ coach, the softly spoken Ian McGeechan, ahead of the key second test against South Africa in 1997. Every rugby fan will know what I am referring to; non-fans of rugby will wonder why on earth they should care. I’ll get to that in a moment, but I came across a talk to rival McGeechan’s this week.
Marking the death of the Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, I interviewed Kevin Fong, presenter of the brilliant podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon. In it, we hear about the mission’s flight director, Gene Kranz, and a speech he gave to his flight controllers in 1969 just before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their descent to the lunar surface, which would see them, in Kranz’s words, either land, abort or crash. “Look, we’re about to do something nobody’s ever done. We’ve trained for this all our lives; we’re gonna do it. But I want to tell you all something: no matter how this turns out, when we walk out of this room, we walk out as a team. Not as individuals.” A lot is made of solidarity, or lack thereof, in all sorts of contexts; perhaps that kind of speech would focus a few minds.
Going back to McGeechan’s speech to his Lions, there’s a line in it that keeps coming to me in this time of the virus. He says, of the sacrifices the players have made in their lives to be there: “When it comes to days like this, you know why you do it. You know why you’ve been involved. It’s been a privilege. It is a privilege. Because we have something special. As you meet in the street in 30 years’ time, there’ll just be a look, and you’ll know just how special some days in your life are.”
I get the same feeling about all of us being in this ghastly Covid business together. You might even argue that we’ve shown we’re made of something special to have come through it. And it’s certainly true that those of us still shuffling around in 30 years’ time will be able to share a look or word that says: yes, we were there.