British & Irish Lions
'It was like a war zone out there'
Tom Hamilton in Brisbane
June 21, 2013
Gary Gold back in his Springbok days © Getty Images
Unlike the crop of 2013, four years ago the British & Irish Lions went into the first Test in Durban against the Springboks unbeaten. They had rolled over the provincial sides, had put 74 points on the Golden Lions and eased past the Sharks, who had a host of players with one eye on turning out for the Boks come the Test series.
With South Africa still smarting from the 1997 loss against the men in red and coming into the 2009 series off the back of the 2007 World Cup triumph, the pressure was on the home side to deliver. Masterminding their charge at the Lions was outspoken Boks head coach Peter de Villiers alongside his assistant coaches Gary Gold and Dick Muir. Gold can now be found putting in the groundwork for his second season in charge of Bath, but the 2009 victory over the Lions was one of the pinnacles of his career.
South Africa's preparation for the first Test saw them play against a Namibia side, who they beat 36-7, and they had two and a half weeks in camp fully focused on working out just how they were going to beat the tourists. They also took to the road to watch the Lions' games against the Golden Lions in Johannesburg and the Sharks in Durban and it all helped the Boks mentally prepare for what they were going to face at Kings Park on June 20, 2009.
"In all the years I have been involved indirectly and directly with the Springboks it was the longest we had to prepare for a Test, it was a lifetime," Gold told ESPN. "We did some team building and played Namibia and we didn't play particularly well but it was a warm-up game. From our point of view, it was a long build-up.
"And we took a risk, about 10 days before the first Test we went quite hammer and tong with the Emerging Springboks, we went live. We pulled out all the stops and give it the full go to put the guys through their paces.
"As the build-up went on, we noticed more and more Lions supporters in the stadiums and we realised that there were going to be 50% people in red in the stadium. The momentum was building fantastically and John Smit and Victor Matfield had spoken about how the occasion was bigger than the World Cup.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Lions is probably the greatest legacy the game has. The intensity and the mood is bigger than any Test match - the first Test is like a World Cup final."
And the Boks did enough to get past the Lions, though Gold remembers the stand opposite where the players walked out in Kings Park, Durban, "as just red". At one stage they were 28-6 up and Gold said "we were sitting there hoping we were going to get 50 points". But the Lions fought back, butlost out 26-21.
While the Lions had a midweek match in-between the opening Test and the next clash in Pretoria, the Boks stayed in camp. They knew they were going to be in for a physical onslaught and it was this area they targeted in training.
Gary Gold alongside Peter de Villiers © Getty Images
What followed was one of the most brutal games of rugby the modern era has witnessed. Five Lions were in hospital after the game while two of the Boks were up in front of the dock for foul play. But it was the men in green who took the game 28-25 and also the series.
"I'm not sure how much I helped but it was up there with the best occasions to be in involved in," Gold remembered. "We were 16-3 down at one stage and going into the second-half we did not have a hope. The momentum was so in the Lions' favour. Even at 25-25 before Ronan O'Gara took out Fourie du Preez, you were thinking that you did not want the Lions series to end in a draw.
"We knew the stakes had been raised significantly from the first Test to the second Test and it was a war zone out there. We worked on our physical presence and the Lions brought it as well. I imagine it was the most brutally physical game of rugby I have seen; when players retire they will talk about that game. It was a case of the players playing their bloody heart as they did not want to lose the second Test."
Gold admits the post-match repercussions of Schalk Burger and Bakkies Botha's suspensions left a slightly bitter taste in the mouth, though he said talking about the incidents again would merely "reopen old wounds". They are part of history, as is the 2009 series, though the Lions managed to get a Test win under their belt when they eased past a much-changed Boks line-up 28-9 in the final game in Johannesburg.
The Boks celebrate the 2009 series win © Getty Images
"We had spoken a lot about the whitewash but off-field issues had caused us to swap things around a fair bit," Gold added. "One thing the Lions do have is strength in depth and we had been under unbelievable pressure from a physical point of view. They did it 1974, 1997 and 2009.
"We just did not have the physicality; we were still playing against 23 players who were good enough to play for the Lions. It was a huge honour for them. And the Lions were very good, they weren't bad in the second Test, but they came together and they were extraordinary. We were beaten by the better team on the day, no question about it."
Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan spoke before the third Test about how he wanted his players to put down a marker for the 2013 crop with a win against the Boks. It was something they managed. But the scoreline still read 2-1 in favour of the Springboks.
It was an achievement Gold remembers fondly, but for him the whole experience proved just how much a game against the Lions meant for his group of Springboks. Four years on, he watched back some of the speeches from the 1997 tour and one from Jim Telfer struck a particular chord with Gold. During Telfer's famous 'Everest speech' he said: "They don't rate us, they don't respect us, they don't respect you, they don't rate you."
It could not have been further from the truth. "I know that's coaching talk, but that could not be more wrong," Gold concluded. "The respect we had in South Africa for the Lions was just immense. What it stands for is just huge and we knew that if we did not turn up then we would be beaten. No doubt about it."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.