Monday, 6 July 2009

The Lions still have a bright future

It was great to see the British and Irish Lions win the third and final test against South Africa on Saturday. It was the least they deserved following their performances over the three tests. I’ve read a few articles about the future of the Lions in the professional era. Can they be competitive? Do they have any relevance? The way the Lions have played over the last month has clearly shown that the Lions concept is still important and relevant in world rugby.

There’s always a thin line between success and failure, and the Lions could quite easily have won this series. In the first test South Africa dominated for the first 60 minutes, but the Lions played with great skill and determination to come back in a way that I didn’t expect, to almost snatch victory, eventually losing 26-21.

The second test was one of the best matches of rugby I’ve ever seen. The first 10 minutes were superb as the Lions really took the physical battle to the Boks. South Africa were incredibly lucky that Schalk Burger stayed on the pitch following his eye gouging of an opponent. Had he been sent off there’s no doubt that the Lions would have won.

To give credit to South Africa, they came back extremely well in the second half as you would expect from world champions, but I do think the key injuries to players such as Brian O’Driscoll turned the tide in South Africa’s favour, even so it was a cruel way to lose a test with South Africa scoring a winning penalty with the last kick of the game. Final score 28-25.

Although the final test meant the series was lost, there was still a huge amount to play for, and it was important that the Lions kept in tact their record of never suffering a whitewash in test series against the Springboks.

It’s obviously disappointing that the Lions lost the series, but they can take great pride in the way that they played. I do think that they can claim some sort of moral victory in the way they conducted themselves, something that unfortunately can't be said for South Africa.

There can’t be any defence in the game for eye gouging but yet South Africa’s head coach Peter de Villiers attempted to do so by claiming that Shalke Burger didn’t even deserve a yellow card. To hear such views was both embarrassing and insulting to anyone who follows the game.

If that wasn’t bad enough the whole of the Springbok team seriously misjudged popular opinion in their armband protest in the final test. Most of their team appeared to be wearing white armbands with the word ‘justice’ written on them. This was in protest against Bakkies Botha’s 2 week ban for his dangerous tackle on Adam Jones in the Second test.

It turned out that Jones dislocated his shoulder following the tackle, and will now be out of action for up to six months, so it’s difficult to understand what South Africa were actually protesting about!

There was much to admire about how the Springboks played throughout the series, but some of their words and actions reveal a lack of class and respect, which I think deflects attention from their skills and ability. They could learn a thing or two from the Lions in that respect.

Now that the Lions have shown that they can put together a team in a matter of weeks and take on the best in the world, it’s important to look at how the Lions can go forward as they’ve now lost the last three series against the Southern hemisphere teams.

For the trip to Australia in 2013, some sort of arrangement needs to be found whereby the Lions have a longer period in which to begin training together.

I suppose this is one of the great challenges of putting together a successful Lions tour, in that you’re bringing together different players from four different countries with different ways of playing and in most normal circumstances are competing against each other in Six Nations matches.

Secondly the Lions need real top quality opposition matches in order to prepare for future series. I’d be more than happy to watch the Lions play France or Italy in a warm up test, but the Southern hemisphere countries need to make sure that their provincial teams include their international players in mid-week games, something which the South African’s declined to do. I’m not sure how easy or whether it’s possible for this to happen, but they are certainly things to be looked at.

This has been a brilliant series and with some excellent rugby played by the Lions, there were a couple of performances which I wanted to highlight in particular, Bryan O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts centre partnership in the first two tests, and also Simon Shaw in the second test.

Anyone who doubts the relevance of the Lions tours should watch this series to change their mind. I’m already looking forward to Australia in 2013. Reading in today’s Guardian, the front row forward Phil Vickery summed it up when he was quoted saying:

“Lions tours should carry on”…“It’s the most unbelievable experience you can have as a rugby player and I pray it continues.”

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