As the final whistle blew in the third and decisive test at the ANZ Stadium, it confirmed what most of us had known and believed from the very start of Warren Gatland’s tour Down Under: even today, in the modern, cut-throat business of professional rugby union, the Lions remain an important, relevant and sacred entity.
The cameras panned round to reveal players, coaches, backroom staff and supporters alike celebrating, shaking hands and embracing one another in a moving display of spirit and solidarity. The emotional scenes being broadcast to millions around the globe embodied all of rugby’s most treasured values.
The touring side, enjoying only their fifth series victory in one-hundred-and-twenty-five years of existence, had faced dispute, injury and agonising defeat along the way. Yet bereft of their captain, and the legendary Brian O’Driscoll for the third and decisive test match, they triumphed in a crushing twenty-five point victory, smashing several records in the process.
It was a tour where controversy reigned – selections and call-ups are always a hot topic for debate, but the sheer intensity and strength of feeling surrounding Gatland’s decisions was arguably unprecedented in the rugby world. This was never more evident than in the lead-up to Saturday’s unforgettable clash in Sydney, where the head coach staked his reputation on a bruising line-up, and sensationally dropped veteran centre O’Driscoll from the twenty-three-man squad. Many, including the author, voiced their concerns over the effectiveness of this physical game plan, and the lack of any discernible Plan B should it fail to bear fruit. We needn’t have worried. Gatland’s selection gambles paid off, and the Lions played with a confidence and verve in attack that hitherto in the first and second test had only briefly raised its head.
Having gone sixteen years without a tour victory, some raised questions over the viability, and worthiness of the Lions model in the build-up to this series. These disapproving voices rose to an indignant crescendo following Gatland’s heavy reliance on his Welsh charges, putting his faith in a hugely abrasive but largely unexciting style of rugby – dubbed “Warrenball” by his critics. Some claimed that a Lions success in this manor would represent a hollow victory, while others went as far as to suggest that they would be abandoning their team and backing the Wallabies in the final showdown, such was their frustration and disillusionment.
In fact, with such a divisive and poisonous air surrounding the series, it seemed that the very concept of the Lions itself was under threat. This no doubt contributed to the “siege mentality” mentioned by members of the backroom staff as Saturday’s deciding fixture approached – with a coach bearing the brunt of worldwide scrutiny, a team facing the biggest game of their lives, and heavy criticism flying in from all sides, it was easy to see why.
But a cornered Lion is a dangerous one. In a speech before the second test of the last successful Lions tour in 1997, the legendary Sir Ian McGeechan warned his players that “when an animal is wounded, it fights for its very existence.” Just as the South African Springbok was to battle to keep that series alive, the Lions of 2013 had to triumph to ensure not only a decisive test victory, but the safeguarding of arguably the most special and unique aspect of world rugby.
Certainly, there are issues to be addressed come 2017, and the next British and Irish voyage to the Southern Hemisphere. The size of the playing squad was arguably too small to cope with the rigours of such a physical end-of-season campaign, and the Lions’ injury list resulted in no fewer than nine call-ups to the touring party. This was exacerbated by a cramped schedule of fixtures, with the duration of the tour itself subject to criticism. In addition, the provincial franchises’ decisions to field weakened line-ups in favour of the Super 15 tournament was both disappointing and largely unnecessary – causing frustration among players and fans, and unsurprisingly sparking allegations of gamesmanship.
The powerful cocktail of emotions stirred and shaken up by the enormity of such a success began to spill over as the final test reached its conclusion. With players and coaching staff celebrating passionately and, in some cases, shedding tears, the unbreakable bond forged between Lions and spoken of by the greats of days gone by was evident in its rawest form. This squad brought to the fore in emphatic style the principles on which the sport has built its reputation, ensuring that unwavering team spirit, courage and fortitude are the lasting memories of the tour, and in the process upholding one of the game’s most cherished concepts. It has not been heard in these parts for many a year, but on Saturday night, the roar of the Lion bellowed out across the Southern Hemisphere.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)