With the British and Irish Test series of 2009 effectively over and the Lions having lost again, I have no doubt that the anti-Lions campaigners will be out in force. These “rugby fans” don’t like seeing their precious players risking injury and form for the benefit of three nations they feel no connectionto. This selfish attitude ignores the fact that the players themselves, the ones these “fans” love, know and embrace the history of Lions tours and many see selection as the greatest on honour they can achieve in their career. Lions-haters would rather deprivee their heroes of that honour. They will point to another two defeats taking the tally to a record 7 in a row and question the point of building up an inevitable disappointment every four years, but anyone who watched the two Tests in South Africa will no better.
Yes the Lions lost and yes that is a third series on the bounce that it has happened but realistically the odds are stacked heavily against the tourists on any given tour. For the past three tours they have faced the team ranked number 1 in the world, their given roughly 6 weeks to train and mesh as a team before taking them on in front of their own fans.
The two defeats on this year’s your cannot be compared to the annihilation suffered at the hands of the all-blacks 4 years ago. McGeechan was spot on when he remarked; “We’re standing here having lost two test matches but we could just as easily be standing here having won two test matches.” Both tests were gripping encounters and arguabley the most entertaining clashes of the season.
Last week in Durban, trailing 27-6 with half an hour to go there were some horrific flashbacks of New Zealand but instead of dropping their heads the Lions showed the character that McGeechan had instilled in them. They seized an opportunity handed to them by De Villers’ rash substitutions and almost staged what would have been the greatest comeback in a Lions test match. The tourists hammered the wold champions in the last 20 minutes and would undoubtedly have won the match if the clock hadn’t been against them.
Fast-forward to yesterday in Pretoria. Much was made of the atmosphere the Lions would endure and the difference Schalk Burger’s presence would make. What transpired was a crowd of nearly equal support with red columns making as much noise as the locals and Burger’s only contribution of note was a nasty eye-gouge on Luke Fitzgerald which earned him a yellow card when a red was obviously the only option. The Lions took the game to the Springboks and for forty minutes had them rattled. As an Irish rugby fan I took great pride in seeing O’ Driscoll go toe to toe with Victor Matfield and Juan Smith, giants by comparison. He may have conceded a penalty but more importantly he made a statement and made it clearly, “bring it on.” It was obvious how much the test meant to the men in red, this was no phony pride for the cameras, these players had bonded and were playing for each other.
Take nothing away from South Africa they were brilliant. Habana and Pieterson were quiet in general but in two set pieces they showed why they’re considered the deadliest finishers around racing in to score after Du Preez had shown his genius. The Boks were able to bring class off the bench as Lions bodies tired, Steyn Fourie and Brussow all had a massive impact and in the end the home side rode their luck to clinch the test.
“We restored pride in the Lions jersey” was McGeechans synopsis of the two tests and it’s hard to argue with that. Pride had been severely dented four years previously but there was no shame in losing to a last minute kcik from half way. At full time your heart went out to players like Kearney, Philips and O’ Connell who had given everything and deserved a chance to tie the series next week, not to mention Roberts, BOD, Jones and Jenkins who endured brutal injuries. Shaw put in the performance of his life and won man of the match but that was little consolation as the Wasps legend couldn’t hold back the tears in a post-match interview. Tell these players that a Lions tour is a joke, tell them that it means nothing in the professional era. As long as Lions teams can show the togetherness and devotion that the 2009 squad have shown fans will continue to travel in their thousands, if you don’t like it change the channel.