Now the dust has settled on the fantastic Lions series in South Africa, it is possible to reflect with a bit of distance on the splendid events of the past 2 months. British and Irish rugby supporters look forward to Lions tours intensely for 4 years, elsewhere in the world for 12, and this one delivered in spades. It had drama, quality, controversy, bitterness but at the end of it all the Lions and all they stand for stood strong and proud.
What will be the legacy of the 2009 breed? Every Lions tour has a few key memories which in years to come are taken to define it. Of those which I have followed, 1989 saw the fierce Lions in a violent series; 1993 was close but remembered as the time the dirt-trackers went ‘off tour’; 1997 is remembered as a legendary, glorious instalment, playing pragmatic, but ultimately winning rugby; 2001 was a sensational but unhappy side who lost to a vastly inferior team; 2005 was an unmitigated disaster.
So how will the 2009 Lions Tour be recalled? I believe it is a tour and a squad who will be remembered fondly in years to come, not just because it was the swansong of the mighty Ian McGeechan. In the tests, the Lions played a brand of rugby as good as we have seen from anyone in recent years. They outplayed South Africa for 4 of the 6 halves of rugby. But ultimately, they failed to make it count. These will be remembered as the unluckiest of Lions, even though now we must not delude ourselves that, while luck played a part, there was much more to it than that.
Several players will forever be associated with this tour, especially by fans from countries other than their own. Certain players took huge strides forward. Mike Phillips moved from being a 4th back rower with dubious core scrum half skills to a most modern world class nine, showing Fourie Du Preez that the identity of the best scrum half in the world is not as clear cut as was thought. Jamie Roberts was devastating. South Africa had no tree-cutter like Joe Worsley but they will have spent plenty of time after the 1st test laying plans to counter the Welsh juggernaut. There is no bigger tribute to him than that both England and South Africa have had to come up with specific game plans to deal with him this year.
While quiet in the tests, Tommy Bowe really burst forth as the player of the first half of the tour, showing touches and lines of the highest class. When the tests began, Rob Kearney took up the mantle with a series of astonishing performances at full back. At fly half, Stephen Jones won the battle for the 10 shirt hands down and elevated himself, if not to the top, then certainly into the company of the best 10s currently playing the game. Riki Flutey proved that we currently have 2 world class 12s in Britain. And Brian O’Driscoll proved once again with his intelligence, commitment and sheer bloody-mindedness that he is the outstanding European outside back of his generation.
In the pack, Simon Shaw’s career got the conclusion that many felt he deserved. He has been mistrusted by selectors over the years but picked the grandest of moments to throw it back in their collective faces. Gethin Jenkins was superb for the second tour in succession and Adam Jones, many people’s third choice tighthead at the start of the tour, became hugely influential. Tom Croft and Jamie Heaslip advanced into the realms of world class and I believe Alan Wyn-Jones is a solid bet to skipper the side to Australia in 2013.
So much for the individual players. What of the team? Some have suggested that this was a better side than that which won in South Africa 12 years ago. Man for man, there is a strong case for this. But the art of winning big games and close games is a crucial skill in and of itself, just as important in its own way as lineouts and handling. The 1997 side had it, the 2009 one did not. South Africa had it, the Lions did not. The 2001 and 2009 sides were superior on paper to the 1997 team but you cannot put a price on ruthless bloody-mindedness. The 2009 vintage fell short in this department.
But the players can move forward with optimism and build on their experiences and achievements. The 2001 boys learned from what happened and the spine of that team went on to win the World Cup 2 years later. By then they were one of the hardest teams to beat ever seen in rugby, as shown by the fact that the only game they lost out of 24 was when their second string went down by a point to a full strength France. Will the key members of this party, namely the Welsh and the Irish, take the same lessons and make that final stride towards believing they can beat absolutely anyone on any given day? If they do, they will be serious contenders when they travel to New Zealand for the 2011 World Cup.
While there will be regrets aplenty, the 2009 Lions Tour was littered with positives for the European game and the hope is that it will give certain players belief that they firmly belong on the toughest stage of all. From the perspective of the armchair fan, there is now a whole new raft of players from countries other than my own, whom I will be cheering and wishing well every time they take the field. That is what the Lions is about; the affection, the drama, the memories. It is about so much more than the rugby, if only everybody understood that. They may not have come home with the spoils, but the heroes of 2009 are winners in all other respects.
By Stuart Peel