A View From Below

Sporting debate and opinion

Lions salvage pride and maintain the ethos and tradition of the outfit that helped them come so close to defeating the Springboks

The British and Irish Lions class of 2009 signed off their tour of South Africa with an emphatic consolation win in Johannesburg in the third test of the series, dominating over the Springboks in a 28-9 victory. Many players have come away from this tour having given the biggest performances of their life – Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts and Simon Shaw to name but a few, and the squad will disperse back to the UK with their heads held high after giving the fans a true Lions test series in all its glory after Clive Woodward’s New Zealand nightmare in 2005 and Graham Henry’s mixed Australian bag in 2001.
The Lions celebrate a winning third test in spite of a series defeat
Even so, for all the superlatives you can throw at this outstanding group of British and Irish warriors, who were not given a hope in hell by the South African media before the tour began, they have fallen short. As Paul O’Connell stated in his post-match interview; the squad as a whole will be left wondering how they lost the first two tests and didn’t manage to wrap up a test series victory and repeat the feats of the 1974 and 1997 Lions by defeating the Springboks in their own back yard.

And they have good reason to be disappointed: never before has the phrase “lies, damed lies, and statistics” been so appropriate. The Lions won on all fronts against the boks except what truly matters – test matches, outscoring their opponents 7 tries to 5, 74 points to 63 and on the man-of-the-match front with Simon Shaw and Shane Williams achieving the gong in the second and thid tests respectively. Counting these factors it is hard to understand how the boks won at all, but test matches are not won on paper and the South Africans were the more clinical and prolific side in the two telling first tests.

However, history will remember South Africa as the winners of the 2009 tour, 2-1 in tests, and although the Lions can be disappointed not to win a series in which they performed above expectations, they have restored the pride of their tradition and nailed a coffin in the argument that the challenge is not possible in the modern era. In 5 weeks Scottish coach Ian McGeechan moulded a group of individuals into a tight-knit squad that almost achieved the ultimate goal in rugby – surely now a Lions season must have the right amount of preparation for the players so that they have the best chance possibe of being winning tourists, starting in 2013 for Australia.

Ian McGeechanMcGeechan has said he is “probably not” going to be involved in the 2013 Australia Lions tour, something that should worry the management in four years time. The Scot is the most successful Lions coach in history, with 4 tours as head, with 2 wins; 1989 and 1997, and 2 close series defeats in 1993 and now 2009, and is a man who encapsulates the spirit and tradition of what the organisation is all about. McGeechan, having been boss of the dirt-trackers in 2005, realised the need for change for this touring party and his size squad of 35 players contrasted heavily with Woodward’s inflated 45 and 21 backroom staff with even room for a spin doctor. As head coach this time around, he placed an emphasis on the camaraderie of previous tours, and made it clear the test team would be picked on form. By all accounts what he has done is to revitilise an oufit that was brought to its knees in New Zealand and people will be encouraged and excited for the trip down under in 2013.

This Lions vintage has been hailed by former players as one of the best ever, in spite of defeat, and the test series heralded as one of the greatest rugby union events in years. Ex-Wales scrum-half Gareth Edwards commended the players of their close fought encounter with the boks and former Scottish full-back Gavin Hastings said this Lions squad was one of the best he’s ever seen. Certaintly the interest in the tour has been lifted and all four home nations will be united for a crack at attaining a first series victory in what will be 16 years by the next test.

It is often commented by rugby pundits from Britain and Ireland that as a player you come back from a Lions tour vastly improved, and this year’s trip has seen huge transformations for many players. This South African team is probably the best in the world, and many Lions have held their own against the top players and can now be regarded in the higher echelons of world rugby too. Before the tour probably only Brian O’Driscoll was universally accepted as world class, now at least half-a-dozen Lions can be talked about in the same bracket as the talismancic Irishman.

Mike Phillips is the most physical and best scrum-half around at putting his team on the front foot. At 6 foot 3 and about 16 stone, the Welshman refused to bow to the script as the young pretending to Fourie Du Preez – the Springbok master, and has come away from this tour reputation glowing, with a new found ability to play at centre too!
Jamie RobertsJamie Roberts is another Wales star who stole the show in SA, proving direct running and aggression is often second best to nothing. The Springboks had no answer to him in the first test, and his partnership with Brian O’Driscoll was one of the highlights of the tour. A medical student at Cardiff Uni, Roberts has a touch of brain to compliment his undoubted brawn, and was awarded the Lions player of the tour.
England lock Simon Shaw finally got his Lions test start in the decisive second test in Pretoria, and how he took it. Man-of-the-match and the best performance of his life Shaw was everywhere, solid in the line-out, a huge blundering prescence in the loose, and a disruptive influence to South African fluidity all over the park. After being told it was his best game after the match, the giant second-row was brought close to tears and can now bring down the curtains on his near 20 year career with sense of fulfilment and satisfaction.
Another Englishman Tom Croft proved his worth on tour, and really underlined how much of a shock it was that he didn’t make the initial squad with two first test tries. Croft has everything needed to be a back-row star with his pace and line-out prowess his most appealing features.
Irish full-back Rob Kearney did everything we thought Lee Byrne would do for the Lions this tour; kick extremely well from his left boot, use his pace and acceleration to beat defenders and take high ball effortlessly. Kearney has immensely enhanced his reputation and at the age of just 23 will surely be part of another Lions effort.
Finally we come to Jamie Heaslip, whose Hercules impersonation in the final test against the Springboks was oustanding. A strong runner, great passer of the ball and stout tackler his performances improved with every game.

The Lions know that they came close to winning, something South African captain John Smit acknowledged at the end of series dinner whilst also proclaiming utmost respect for the touring side and how it should forever continue, and although they did not triumph they have so much young talent – Croft, Kearney, Heaslip, Roberts, that Lions fan can already start to dream about a winning 2013 series.
As for South Africa, many of their players have now won everything the game has to offer, and although caused some controversy during the tour, with the ‘justice 4 Bakkies’ armband incident, Burger’s eye gauge and coach De Villier’s ridiculous comments further proving the heightened emotions that go hand in hand with a Lions tour, shaded the series and perhaps deserved too after their 12 year heartache. It was a tough and close fought series, one which enthralled, engrossed and excited rugby fans all over the world.

2009 Lions Tour winning South African side

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July 6, 2009 - Posted by | Rugby Union

1 Comment »

  1. World Class Sports writing there…amen

    Comment by Dan | July 6, 2009 | Reply


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