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History of the Lions: South Africa 2009

By Sean Davies

After the debacle of the 2005 tour, Lions legend Ian McGeechan was returned to the head coach role with the brief to restore core values.

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Having selected a back-room team dominated by Wales and Wasps, the Scot named a slimmed-down, 37-man squad, promising that selection would not be pre-determined and that the squad would operate as one unit.

Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam winners supplied captain Paul O'Connell and 14 members of the original squad, with 13 Welsh players selected, eight from England and just two from Scotland.

Plans were almost immediately disrupted, though, with pre-tour injuries ruling out Tomas O'Leary, Tom Shanklin and Jerry Flannery, while Alan Quinlan was banned because of an eye-gouging incident.

Still, McGeechan's plans for team bonding seemed to progress smoothly with happy noises coming out of the Lions camp as they arrived in South Africa.

Preparations were hampered by the weakened teams put out by the provincial teams facing them, while a high ticket-pricing policy deterred many of the local supporters.

But the Lions showed encouraging form and - despite wobbles against the Royal XV, Cheetahs and Western Province - went through the pre-Test matches with a 100% record.

The second Test injury to Adam Jones proved decisive in the brutal, losing series in South Africa in 2009
The second Test injury to Adam Jones proved decisive in the series

The tourists faced the world champion Springboks in Durban with hopes high, but selection and injuries would lead to the tourists' downfall, the series turning on the unlikely shoulders of tight-head prop Adam Jones.

Lions scrum coach Graham Rowntree went for former England team-mate and 2003 World Cup winner Phil Vickery as his safe pair of hands at tight-head, with Jones on the bench.

The Lions scrum had impressed all tour and it was an area where they expected to win a significant advantage.

But facing Vickery was Springbok cult hero Tendai Mtawarira, and from the opening scrum "The Beast" tore into the England veteran, giving him the worst mauling of his distinguished career.

With Vickery repeatedly penalised at the scrum and the home forwards rampant in the line-out and driving maul, the Boks built a commanding, 26-7 second-half lead.

Lions fans had been calling for front-row changes from the first quarter of the game, and when Jones and hooker Matthew Rees were eventually introduced for Vickery and Lee Mears there was an immediate impact.

The South Africa scrum began to be shunted backwards, giving the Lions' dynamic back line - led by outstanding centre pair Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll - the chance to shine.

Roberts had set Tom Croft up for a first-half try, and when O'Driscoll put the England flanker over for his second with 12 minutes remaining the Test was alive.

Mike Phillips' try reduced the gap to 26-21 five minutes from time, but it was too little, too late, and the Lions were left to rue two blown chances from wing Ugo Monye, a controversial choice ahead of the IRB's 2008 player of the year, Shane Williams.

Ronan O'Gara
O'Gara came off the bench for a nightmare 13 minutes in Pretoria

Few gave the tourists the chance of turning the series around with the final two Tests to be played at altitude.

McGeechan brought Rees, Jones and Simon Shaw in to stiffen his pack for the clash at Loftus Versfeld, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald joining the back line.

The rejuvenated Lions tore into the Boks from the outset, the outstanding Kearney crossing for an excellent early try while fly-half Stephen Jones' boot built his side's lead.

South Africa had tried to outmuscle their opponents from the start, Schalk Burger fortunate to receive only a yellow card for a first-minute gouging of Fitzgerald.

But the tactics only began to have an impact following a devastating run of Lions injuries early in the second half.

Gethin Jenkins went off with a fractured cheekbone on 45 minutes, leaving the field at the same time as fellow prop Adam Jones, who suffered a dislocated shoulder following an illegal charge from Bakkies Botha.

The switch to passive scrums upset the Lions' platform, and the relentless Boks struck back with a fine Bryan Habana set-piece move following a scrum.

That try took advantage of the confusion surrounding a concussed O'Driscoll, who soon left the field, quickly followed by co-centre Roberts (wrist injury).

Ronan O'Gara joined a now-lightweight Lions midfield, and the fly-half proved little more than a speed-bump to Jaque Fourie who powered over for a 74th-minute try, awarded after agonising deliberation from the video referee.

Morne Steyn's touch-line conversion took the Boks 25-22 ahead, but Stephen Jones levelled the game with a superb, nerveless penalty, taking his match haul to 20 points.

In the dying seconds, Steyn kicked deep into the visitors' 22, leaving the Lions coaches shouting for a kick to touch that would have kept the series alive going into the final week.

It's rugby, not ballet - De Villiers

But O'Gara launched a Garryowen, the fly-half following up only to stumble into Fourie Du Preez when the scrum-half was still in the air.

Steyn stepped forward calmly to fire the winning, 53-metre penalty straight through the posts and spark widespread Springbok celebrations.

It was clear that the Lions felt they had got less than they deserved from the series, and South Africa's belief that they were not getting proper credit for their win contributed to a tense post-match atmosphere.

Controversial Springbok coach Peter de Villiers sparked outrage when he defended Burger's gouging incident.

"It is a contact sport and so is dancing," said de Villiers. "Guys who can't take it, let's go to the nearest ballet shop and get some tutus."

Burger was banned for the final Test along with Botha, whose charge on Jones the South Africans felt was legal, prompting the Boks to wear armbands proclaiming the word "Justice 4".

This helped build the Ellis Park finale into much more than a dead-rubber match, but perhaps more significant was the formidable team spirit of the Lions.

Shane Williams and Mike Phillips celebrate victory in the third Test
Victory in Ellis Park ended a Test losing streak stretching back to 2001

They were determined to claim the victory they felt their efforts had deserved, and also desperate to end a seven-match Lions Test losing streak that stretched back to the first game against Australia in 2001 (not counting the draw with Argentina in 2005).

The tourists put aside any thoughts of fatigue in a dynamic performance, with Shane Williams - relishing a starting spot and the chance to shine - racing in for two first-half tries.

Stephen Jones kept the scoreboard ticking over with 13 points, and Monye's second-half, 70m interception try ensured a comfortable 28-9 victory for his side.

That silenced the murmurs that the losing Lions were finished as a concept in the professional era, comments that seemed remarkable when up to 40,000 fans had followed them to South Africa.

Rather than ending the history of the Lions, the aspiration for Australia in 2013 was for a longer tour with more competitive matches in the build-up to the Test series.



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see also
2009 Lions: Squad & results
09 Jul 09 |  Rugby Union
History of the Lions
02 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Lions history in pictures
21 May 09 |  Rugby Union
Scrum V's rugby history
11 Aug 07 |  Welsh
All Blacks magic: New Zealand rugby
21 Oct 08 |  Rugby Union
Mighty Boks: South African rugby
01 Oct 08 |  Rugby Union
Wallaby wonders: Aussie rugby
21 Oct 08 |  Rugby Union


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