So it’s over. The sporting even I’ve been most excited about since the Rugby World Cup 2007, The British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa ended on Saturday afternoon with the Lions having restored pride in the red jersey by tearing the Boks apart, 28-9. The pessimists will point to the fact that the series was over as a contest and that De Villiers picked a ‘B team’, but credit must go to O’ Connell’s men who dug deep after the crushing disappointment in Pretoria and produced a sterling performance. Of course the Boks wanted to win, they had opportunity to record the first South African whitewash over the Lions, they were playing in Johannesburg where they are nearly invincible and they still had quality all over the pitch.
Attention should be drawn to the fact that the Lions team was nearly equally depleted. Injuries saw Bowe and Philips forming a centre partnership nobody could have predicted at the start of the tour. Both first choice props were unavailable also. What was so impressive about this Lions victory was the cohesion and precision McGeechans men displayed. Players like Monye and Shane Williams who had struggled with form dug out their best performances of the tour while the pack fronted up magnificently. Heaslip, O’ Connell and others seemed to dwarf their opposite numbers as the the Lions matched and surpassed the physicality of the Boks, who were bullied for 80 minutes.
Congratulations must go to South Africa for coming out of a fiercely contested series on top. That said, after Saturday’s victory there was palpable optimism across the Britain and Ireland about the future of Lions tours. McGeechan said that Saturday was among his happiest days in rugby and he dubbed the tour in general as magnificent. In many ways this narrow series defeat is more impressive than 1997’s victory. The ’97 triumph was due in no small part to the weakness of the Springboks and their lack of a recognised place kicker. This tour pitted McGeechan’s troops up against the World Champions, who are undoubtedly the best National side at the moment, and if luck had truly favoured the brave the troops would be celebrating the greatest Lions victory ever.
It is widely submitted that the ’09 tour was the most compelling of all. The tests in Durban and Pretoria served up some of the most exciting and passionate rugby your likely to see this decade. Central to the tour’s success was McGeechan’s ability to instill the Lions ethos in his squad and create a team with genuine respect and devotion. The Lions may have come up just short of winning the series, but in their dignified defeat they have proven just what a Lions tour means to the modern player. The general consensus is probably best captured by the comments of Jon Smit after the test on Saturday;
“This has been a fantastic series. The Lions must continue.”