It is hard to put into words how the players and supporters of the British and Irish Lions were feeling on Saturday evening. By Sunday morning they will have been completely numb, either from drinking through the disappointment or from having shut the whole thing out of their brains altogether. Over time, a few key words have come to the fore in picking over the bones of the bravest, yet most painful of defeats.
Harsh. Harsh beyond measure. So harsh in fact that the brain struggles to process that the events which unfolded before the eyes actually took place. If ever a single rush of blood cost a test series, this was it. In the ultimate team sport, it is especially devastating when one (or two) error(s) ends the dreams of you and your mates. This is the cross that Ronan O’Gara will have to bear. However much you may have cursed him at the time, you would not wish that on anybody.
Luck. Where was the luck? The catalogue of misfortune which befell the Lions in the Second Test beggared belief. The spine of Christophe Berdos, made as it was from the finest French jelly, failed and Schalk Burger received only a yellow card for his assault on Luke Fitzgerald; the props, so dominant, were injured in the same passage of play; the centres soon followed suit; the tightest of tight calls for the final South African try where the video ref should surely have said that there was no conclusive angle and handed it back to the onfield officials.
Courage. The penalty kicked by Stephen Jones to level the scores at 25 all must have been 3 of the hardest won points in rugby, and what a kick it was. With the backline decimated, Brian O’Driscoll tried to soldier on, despite not knowing who he was or what he was doing there; Simon Shaw was extraordinary, Andrew Sheridan immoveable, Mike Phillips irrepressible, Jones unerring.
But courage. Any team who overturns an 11 point deficit having been played off the park for 50 minutes deserves praise. It takes courage to keep believing in what you are doing and make the right calls at the right time. South Africa did this and that is the mark of an excellent team.
Courage? It would have taken courage to send off one of the home team’s star players after 30 seconds but that was what was required. I once played in a crucial game in which our hooker was sent off after 10 seconds for a much less clear-cut offence. The courage of the players on both teams was unquestionable. The same cannot be said of the officials.
Joy. Whichever colour you were wearing, this was one of the most intense, epic, titanic battles you could ever wish to see on any sports field. It was a joy to behold, a privilege to witness. With its rule experiments, north-south divide, maltreatment of lesser teams and turgid kicking duels, rugby has made some negative headlines of late. But we had further evidence that it can provide the ultimate test of skill, athleticism, strength and character. It was truly memorable.
Relief. The Lions will live on. After the teething difficulties the Lions have had with professionalism, spanning the unhappy trip to Australia in 2001 when a truly outstanding team contrived to lose the series, to the full-scale disaster of 2005, the Lions concept was under the cosh. Was it sustainable as a concept? Will a scratch team ever be able to compete? Will it be turgid, second-rate stuff, a desperate grasp at retaining bygone, outdated amateur values? Well be silent ye doubters. These 2 tests have confirmed that the British Lions Tour is the greatest thing that rugby has to offer bar none. And in my book, that makes it the greatest thing in sport.
Devastation. Sheer, unadulterated, eye-wateringly painful, remorseless desolation. The Lions supporters will have been beside themselves on Saturday night. Take that feeling, multiply it by infinity and you may reach where the players were, sitting in a state of shock in a changing room that must have resembled a field hospital. For some, this was their last chance, for some their only chance. The rest will be making a silent pledge that they will never feel like this again. And that bodes well for Australia 2013.
By Stuart Peel