With the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa fast approaching, time to look back twelve years to one of the most memorable and important test series in the long history of the famous touring side….
For British & Irish rugby fans the Lions holds a special place in their hearts. In practice it shouldn’t work, four nations who do battle against each other year in year out coming together as one team all in the space of barely eight weeks, four sets of patriotic supporters putting all the historic tribalism aside to support one unique cause. That it works in many ways is nothing short of a miracle, but it does so because those directly involved – players, coaches, fans – buy into it with all they have, whether it be the fans who save up hard-earned cash to travel to the other side of the world to support a team that only comes together once every four years, or the players and coaches who unite together with the aim of winning a test series on foreign soil. The last two Lions tours have yielded great success and the hope is that will continue this summer when the Lions travel to face the world champions Springboks in their own back-yard. However roll the clock back twelve years to the last time the Lions visited South Africa and things were much different.
Being just ten-years-old at the time, I remember very little about the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand. I can vaguely remember Gareth Thomas scoring early in the second test before Dan Carter destroyed any hopes of a Lions comeback with a masterful individual performance, but on the whole the 2005 series was very much forgettable for someone so young whose interest in the sport had barely piqued. By 2009 however I was a rugby nut and like many a fan I was excited about the return of the Lions. By a quirk of fate the Lions were travelling to South Africa to face the reigning world champions, just as they had done on their last visit in 1997. The ’97 tour has gone down in history as one of the great Lions series, the first tour of the professional era and a famous 2-1 series win for the tourists, the enduring images of Matt Dawson’s dummy and try in the corner and Jeremy Guscott’s series-clinching drop-goal living long in the memory. Yet in the years post ’97 as the game moved further forward in the professional era, the Lions struggles became apparent.
The 2001 tour to Australia started spectacularly with a dominant Lions win at the Gabba in the first test. Yet amidst apparent friction behind the scenes between some players and coaches, from a position of strength the series unravelled as the Wallabies came back to win the final two test matches and clinch a 2-1 series win. Roll forward to 2005 and things got even worse for the Lions as despite being led by England’s World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward, a bloated and divided 45-man playing squad were torn to shreds by the ruthless All Blacks led by their young star Dan Carter. Following the embarrassing 3-0 series whitewash in New Zealand and with it a second consecutive series defeat, questions inevitably began to be asked about the relevance of the Lions in the professional era.
By 2009 the stakes were high for the Lions. Recent tours had provided a great deal of ammunition to those who were against the Lions concept, and many supporters of the Lions feared that another underwhelming tour could prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the famous touring side. With all this in mind it became vital that the Lions picked the right coach to lead the series. Graham Henry (2001) and Sir Clive Woodward (2005) were both great coaches who would each end their coaching careers with a World Cup trophy to their name, but neither coach looked comfortable in what is a unique position with Henry falling out with players and Woodward being too cautious and making poor decisions with squad selection. So perhaps it was no surprise that the Lions top brass returned to a man who had great familiarity with the touring side. As both a player and coach, Sir Ian McGeechan had achieved legendary status with the Lions. Having toured in 1974 and 1977 as a player, McGeechan returned as coach in 1989 for the tour of Australia and would go on to lead a further two more consecutive tours in 1993 (New Zealand) and 1997 (South Africa). A series-winning coach on two of the three tours he led, the great Scot McGeechan was on obvious candidate to lead the Lions at such a challenging period in their history. Having spent some time away from the international test arena, McGeechan chose the three men who had led Wales to the Grand Slam in 2008, Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley as assistant coaches along with former Lions Graham Rowntree and Neil Jenkins.
Despite the recent troubles of the Lions, McGeechan had a great deal of international class and pedigree to choose from for his playing squad in 2009. Scotland may have struggled for some years, but England had reached a World Cup final in 2007, whilst Wales (2008) and Ireland (2009) had secured Grand Slams, ensuring that a large contingent of the Lions squad of 2009 had already achieved success on the test stage. Unsurprisingly given their recent Grand Slam win, it was an Irishman given the honour of captaining the team but it wasn’t to be their Grand Slam-winning skipper Brian O’Driscoll, with the towering Munster lock forward Paul O’Connell chosen as the tour leader succeeding O’Driscoll who had been tour captain in New Zealand. As with any Lions squad there were faces new and old, with the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Tom Croft and Rob Kearney on their first tours being guided by experienced Lions including Simon Shaw, Martyn Williams and Ronan O’Gara. In many ways the playing squad represented a changing of the guard. There was a good balance between experience and youth but for many players such as Shaw, O’Gara and Williams this tour represented in all likelihood their last opportunity to wear the famous jersey and with the exception of Shaw – a tour member in ’97 – none of those players, even those on their second or third tours had ever experienced a series win. In contrast, youngsters like Jamie Roberts, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney on their first tours were picking up the baton for a new generation of Lions to emerge.
Having won the World Cup in 2007, the South African test squad contained the core of the team that had won the Webb Ellis Trophy, with captain John Smit joined by Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana along with others who emerged victorious in France. Yet if anything the Springboks side of 2009 was even better with the likes of Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Pierre Spies and Morne Steyn added to those who had triumphed in 2007. The fearsome lock forward duo of Matfield and Botha were a clear symbol of South Africa’s uncompromising style of play, with Spies providing raw strength and athleticism from the back-row, whilst amongst the backs scrum-half du Preez often had a masterful control of proceedings and out wide you had the devastating pace and finishing prowess of Habana.
If the Lions didn’t know what was coming their way, they were soon to have a rude awakening in the first test in Durban. The hosts came firing out of the block with their forwards in particular enjoying a dominant first-half performance that laid the platform for a healthy 19-7 half-time lead courtesy of an early try from captain John Smit and penalties from the boot of fly-half Ruan Pienaar. The Lions did score through flanker Tom Croft midway through the half to offer some hope, but they were being ruthlessly overpowered in the scrum where experienced English prop Phil Vickery was having a torrid time against South Africa’s new scrummaging sensation, Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira. Things got even worse for the Lions early in the second half as the Springboks pack continued to dominate with Heinrich Brussow going over for another try this time from a South African rolling maul. 26-7 down approaching the final quarter, the tourists were staring down the barrel of another crushing test loss. Trying to turn the tide, McGeechan and his coaches opted to bring on Welsh prop Adam Jones for Vickery in order to shore up the scrum. Moving into final quarter the Lions stepped it up with Tom Croft going over from close range for his second try, before winger Ugo Monye came agonisingly close to scoring in the corner dropping the ball just short of the try-line. However the Lions continued with their pressure close to the South African line with scrum-half Mike Phillips darting over for a try that at 26-21 made it a one-score game going into the final five minutes. To the great relief of the home crowd the Springboks just about saw the game out to take an early series lead, but with their spirited fightback at the end the Lions had served notice that the series was far from over.
With little time to dwell on the first test, focus soon shifted to the second test in Pretoria. Full-back Lee Bryne had departed early in the first test due to injury, with young Irish replacement Rob Kearney turning in a composed display that saw him grab the 15 jersey for the second test. A further four changes were made with Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Simon Shaw and Luke Fitzgerald coming in for Lee Mears, Phil Vickery, Alun Wyn Jones and Ugo Monye respectively. With three changes amongst the forwards, McGeechan and his coaches had looked to address the issues of the first test where the Springbok pack had dominated their rivals and helped build their commanding lead. However with the Lions causing some problems in attack there was cause for optimism as long as the Lions pack could match their opposite numbers.
A fast start was needed by the Lions in the second test and within the opening minute they got a helping hand from a South African. Returning from injury for his 50th test cap, flanker Schalk Burger was seen gouging the eye of Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald. In what could and perhaps should have proven to be a defining moment in the test series, the referee opted for a yellow card despite replays appearing to show that the action was more worthy of a red card. As it was the Lions had a one-man advantage for the opening ten minutes and an early Stephen Jones penalty got them up and running on the scoreboard. Having been bullied in the opening test, the Lions were determined to show more fight and showed as much when Brian O’Driscoll responded to a push from Victor Matfield by squaring up to the Springbok lock, an action that led to several players from both sides getting involved in pushing and shoving, and a clear sign that the Lions were not going to be intimidated. The Lions continued with their aggressive start and were rewarded when an exquisite offload from fly-half Stephen Jones released Rob Kearney to score the opening try. The hosts responded in kind with a well-worked move off a line-out that saw winger JP Pietersen come in-field and race in for an unconverted try. A far more even contest than the first test, a couple of Stephen Jones penalties saw the Lions inch further ahead before a penalty from Francois Steyn cut the Lions lead to eight points at the break. In what had already been a high-intensity match with a fair bit of needle between the two sides, the second-half would prove to a physically brutal affair the likes of which in the modern game would likely yield half-a-dozen red cards. Looking to get back in the game South Africa turned to their physical edge and the casualties soon mounted up for the Lions with Gethin Jenkins suffering a fractured cheekbone and being forced off before Adam Jones suffered a dislocated shoulder following a dangerous clear-out from Bakkies Botha. When Stephen Jones kicked what looked a decisive penalty on the hour mark, South Africa responded immediately with Bryan Habana carving his way through the Lions defence to score a try that with the conversion saw the Lions lead reduced to just four points. The Springboks now had the momentum and took the lead in the final ten minutes when replacement Jaque Fourie powered his way over in the corner. Another conversion from Steyn saw South Africa take the lead for the first time in the match at 25-22 with just five minutes to play. Somehow the Lions managed to stir a response and win a penalty where Stephen Jones showed nerves of steel to kick a successful penalty from out against the touchline to draw the two sides level with barely two minutes to play. With the game seemingly heading towards a draw, replacement Ronan O’Gara – still somewhat dazed from knock to the head attempting to tackle Fourie – hoisted up a kick to chase, only to concede a penalty when taking out Fourie du Preez in the air. Up stepped Morne Steyn and the rest is history, as the South African fly-half announced himself on the test stage with a huge kick that clinched the series for South Africa. Heartbreak for the Lions who had produced one of the most heroic performances in their history in a test still talked about today for its intensity and brutal nature.
Defeat in the second test had taken its toll on both sides, with changes aplenty for the third test in Johannesburg. Stripped of key players including props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones along with centre partners Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll, McGeechan looked to the likes of Andrew Sheridan, Riki Flutey and Shane Williams whilst there was a shot at redemption for Phil Vickery and Ugo Monye. Both Vickery and Monye had their struggles in the first test and both may have thought their opportunity to don the famous red jersey again had sailed them by, but injuries opened the door for them. Many would argue that with the series already gone, the stakes were not that high but for the Lions this was a critical match. Defeat in the second test was the Lions’ seventh in a row going back all the way to Australia in 2001. The third test also represented in all likelihood Ian McGeechan’s final test as a Lions coach as well the final opportunity for many players to wear the famous red jersey. What followed was a performance of great character, discipline and skill as a much-changed Lions team produced a commanding display to end their long losing streak. A first-half brace from Shane Williams set them on their way, with the Welsh winger the beneficiary of a great burst of speed from Jamie Heaslip for his first and some skilful quick hands from Riki Flutey for his second. With Stephen Jones accurate as ever from the kicking tee the Lions had a healthy 15-6 lead the break. It was a lead they would not relinquish as Ugo Monye made up for his error in the first test by intercepting a South African pass and running the length of the field for a try that sealed a memorable test win, with the Lions defence holding the South Africans at bay to secure a deserved 28-9 win and with-it their first test win in eight matches. It was just reward for a Lions side who had given so much over the three test matches and had come up agonisingly short against a world-class Springboks side.
The Lions of 2009 may have ultimately come up short in their quest for that elusive test series win, but what they did do was restore pride in a jersey that had been tainted by crushing defeats in the recent past. In contrast to the previous series in New Zealand, the tests against South Africa had been tight, tense, competitive affairs where both sides contributed with test rugby of the highest quality. Despite losing the series, victory in the third test had ended a long run of seven consecutive test defeats, and in a professional era where winning seemed to take on greater precedence the Lions suddenly became relevant again.
As a tour with its roots born from the amateur era, it has at times been a struggle for the Lions to bridge the gap that has come with the professionalism of rugby over the last twenty years. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Lions struggled to compete over consecutive tours at the turn of this century, and for those who who see Lions tours as an ancient relic that should be cast aside to the history books, a run of seven consecutive test defeats over an eight-year period encompassing three tours gave plenty of ammunition to those who wanted an end to Lions tours. Victory in the third test in 2009 not only put an end to a long run of defeats but also gave the Lions a platform from which to grow rather than shrink in the professional game.
Since 2009 the Lions have gone from strength to strength, with the class of 2013 finally delivering a first test series win in sixteen years with a 2-1 series win over Australia, followed four years later with a 1-1 series draw in the back-yard of double world champions New Zealand. An even more remarkable statistic is that since losing what was their seventh test in a row when Morne Steyn kicked the decisive penalty in the second test in Pretoria, the Lions have lost just two of their last seven test matches, winning four with one drawn match. Over the last three tours they have won at least one test match in the series, meaning they have beaten each of the Southern Hemisphere giants in recent times.
The 2013 tour to Australia felt like a new dawn for the Lions with a young, confident squad full of players already accustomed to winning titles. As if to emphasise this point, 23-year-old captain Sam Warburton had already played in a World Cup semi-final, won a Grand Slam and another Six Nations title, most of which was played alongside fellow Lions newcomers Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau, Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny. With Irishmen Sean O’Brien and Jonny Sexton playing a pivotal role in Leinster winning back-to-back European Cups also, the Lions arrived in Australia with a talented group of young players already used to winning at the highest level, and having inherited a winning test jersey thanks to the efforts of the class of 2009 a considerable weight of responsibility and pressure had been lifted from their shoulders. Having narrowly overcome the Wallabies in the first test, the tables were turned in the second test with Australia levelling the series before the tourists produced one of their greatest ever performances in crushing Australia 41-16 in the deciding third test. The stars of that tour may have been young players like George North, Sexton and Halfpenny, but they were ably supported by experienced players, with Adam Jones, Croft, Phillips, Heaslip, Roberts, O’Driscoll and Bowe all playing a big role in the series just as they had done in 2009. With the series in the balance going into that third and final test, you can bet it was those players who experienced those painful defeats in 2009 that helped lift the younger players’ spirits and motivate and inspire them to secure the series win.
Even despite the Lions’ success on the last two tours, the 2009 Lions hold a special place in many supporters’ hearts because arguably their challenge was far greater than those faced in 2013 and 2017. Make no mistake about it, the 2009 Springboks were a better, more complete side than the one that conquered the world in 2007. They proved just as much a couple of months after the 2009 series in winning that year’s Tri Nations – beating New Zealand three times in the process, including a rare victory on New Zealand soil. The 2013 Australia side was a poor side containing a handful of talented individuals not sure of their best positions, and with a coach who was clearly coming to the end of a reign that never seemed to click into gear. The 2017 All Blacks may have been feted as the best rugby side in history having won back-to-back World Cups and dominated all before them in 2016, but that test series showed up a naivety in a young side who had yet to be properly tested, and stripped of the knowhow, nous and big-game experience of players like Carter, McCaw, Nonu and Conrad Smith, New Zealand were unable to close out tight test matches – a fact clearly evident in the second and third tests in 2017.
Whatever squad Lions coach Warren Gatland names to face the reigning world champions this summer, the Lions will return to South Africa in far better shape than when they last toured thanks in no small part to the achievements of the class of 2009, a team whose exploits across that epic test series may well have preserved the existence of the modern-day British and Irish Lions that is so celebrated today.