British & Irish Lions
Lions have reason to be proud
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
July 5, 2009
The Lions close ranks ahead of their third Test victory over the Springboks at Ellis Park © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions' tour of South Africa may well have been blighted by inflated ticket prices but their can be no doubt that the epic Test series provided value for money.
The pulsating three-act drama between the elite tourists and the Springboks brought the curtain down on an enthralling six weeks that will live long in the memory.
Rugby's last great adventure began with the squad announcement and appointment of captain Paul O'Connell back in April but by the time the Class of 2009 had gathered in the leafy surrounds of the Lions' training base in Surrey a gruelling domestic season had already taken its toll.
Scrum-half Tomas O'Leary was the first to see his Lions dream end - just three days after his selection - but he would not be the last. The painful roll call of players sidelined by injury or suspension would climb to a staggering 13 by the end of the tour.
As a result of their limited preparation time it was not a surprise to see the Lions labour to their opening victory over the Royal XV in Rustenberg and there were additional concerns over the half-empty stadium. Perhaps we had all fallen for the widespread marketing and were expecting fans to have done the same. But there seemed little desire to catch a piece of this 'once in a lifetime' experience. The small matter of a Super 14 final clash featuring the Bulls that same afternoon had caught the collective eye of the South African sporting public and glossed over the issue - but not for long.
Next up were the Golden Lions - or at least a group of players going by that name. Rudderless and with rumours of internal unrest they were duly dismissed by their rampant namesake. The Lions suffered a scare in Bloemfontein in their next game with the Cheetahs pushing the tourists all the way. And had Louis Strydom's last-gasp drop goal sailed over instead of agonisingly wide then they would have had a famous victory.
Onto Durban and another convincing win, this time against the Sharks at Kings Park. But any over-confidence was soon tempered by another narrow escape at the hands of Western Province in Cape Town just three days later. The already battered and bruised Lions took another pounding at the hands of the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth but still had enough class to maintain their unbeaten record.
And so t o the first Test with the disquiet about attendances and ticket prices growing but those who were present in Durban witnessed an awesome opening from the Springboks. They bullied the Lions for the best part of an hour with a superb display of power rugby - with prop Phil Vickery feeling the force most - that immediately brought in to question the standard of the opposition in the warm-up games. But the Lions showed tremendous character to conjure a storming comeback but the clock eventually beat them. The one Test the Lions supposedly had to win, and the only one at sea-level, had been lost.
With reports of tickets for that first Test being given away free in a bid to fill the embarrassing swathes of empty seat finally sparked a response from SA Rugby. And they made a clear and concise case that appeared to silence their critics. The global economic turndown was blamed for the fact that fewer Lions fans had made the trip from overseas but South African officials were keen to stress that an average attendance of 35,000 for all the games was higher than the previous two Lions tours.
The Lions suffered another demoralising blow in their last midweek clash in Cape Town at the hands of the Emerging Springboks where replacement fly-half Willem De Waal snatched a draw for his side with the last kick of the game.
Another hometown hero would steal the headlines at the second Test in Pretoria where the second thrilling chapter in the series would be played out. The Lions were not supposed to stand a chance in the cauldron that is Loftus Versfeld, 1400m above sea-level, but they confounded their critics with a battling display - but sadly it was not enough.
The see-saw encounter also provided the defining moment of the tour and for Irishman Ronan O'Gara it is not one he will want to remember. With the game and the series in the balance and the clock all but run down, O'Gara sent an up and under into midfield before upending Springboks scrum-half Fourie du Preez. That moment of madness handed Morne Steyn the chance to wrap up the game and with it the series.
Some immediately cast O'Gara as the villain following his costly 12-minute cameo while others felt compelled to point to his refusal to accept the draw and go for the win that would keep the Lions' hopes of a series victory alive. History can be a cruel judge and on this occasion it will not be kind on O'Gara.
Controversy over-shadowed the Springboks' success with citings and bans for Schalk Burger and Bakkies Botha and the always colourful Springboks coach Peter de Villiers inadvertently fanned the flames in front of the media to the point where his union had to step in. Further fallout came in the form of handshake-gate - did McGeechan and his South De Villiers shake hands after that game or not?
With the series gone and injuries piling up few predicted a final flourish from the Lions but that is what they produced. A much-changed Springboks side were still heavy favourites but such assumptions did not take account of the special spirit that had been fostered within the Lions' ranks. There was no way they were going to allow the Springboks to notch their first series whitewash and the Lions outplayed their hosts to end the tour on a high.
Sport at the highest level comes down to the smallest of margins and nowhere was that more evident than this classic Test series. In the end the Lions were not able to repeat the success of 1974 and 1997 but let us not underestimate what these players achieved in such a short space of time.
Lions head coach Ian McGeechan embraces his captain Paul O'Connell following their third Test victory © Getty Images
McGeechan's ability to conjure a team from a talented group of individuals continues to astound. His affinity with the Lions, forged over seven tours as a player and coach, and his unrivalled man-management skills make him a weapon just as threatening as the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Tommy Bowe or Rob Kearney.
McGeechan and co have also restored credibility to the Lions brand following a shambolic tour to New Zealand four years ago. There were fears that the Lions had been irreparably damaged but those concerns will have been dispelled by this latest tour.
Many fans and players will already be looking ahead to Australia in 2013 with fresh hope such is the hypnotic power of the famous red jersey. But before that day comes the sport's guardians must ensure they learn the lessons of this latest tour.
As one of the crown jewels of the game, the Lions tour must be treated with due respect. That means the powerbrokers working together to ensure not only the survival but the growth of the brand.
To that end, the squad must be given more times to prepare for what is always guaranteed to be a gruelling physical and psychological test. This year's Lions came together just a week or two before their departure due to the demands of the domestic season which immediately put them on the back foot. The rugby calendar in Britain and Ireland needs to be structured in a way that benefits the Lions - not hampers them. The success of the Lions, both on and off the field, will eventually filter down to the club game and beyond and all parties need to be pulling in the right direction.
In addition the fans must not be short-changed. Both sets of supporters can expect to pay a premium to watch the Lions but never again should the internationals be allowed to be withdrawn from the warm-up games. It devalues the tour and is an insult to those fans that have had to dig deep for the chance to watch those matches.
As ever it is the action that defines the success of a Lions tour and after a slow start this tour built to a thunderous crescendo. The Springboks deservedly claimed the series glory but in defeat these brave Lions can stand proud alongside their victorious predecessors.