A fine way to finish

The Springboks may have triumphed in the 2009 series overall but it was the Lions who won the third and final Test in emphatic fashion. [more]

A fine way to finish

The Springboks may have triumphed in the 2009 series overall but it was the Lions who won the third and final Test in emphatic fashion.

And while the Lions celebrated their stunning 28-9 victory in Johannesburg, the British and Irish media wrote about the three tries to nil thrashing with almost as much pleasure.

Here’s what a selection of the written press had to say as the Lions brought down the curtain on a truly memorable 10-match tour…

Peter Jackson in the Daily Mail

Half an hour before kick-off in the bowels of Ellis Park, Warren Gatland raised the blood-red jersey above his head and asked a rhetorical question.

As the players sat all around him in a dressing room crackling with high voltage tension, the Wales coach had spoken of those about to wear it for the last time. The majority would never be in such a privileged position again and when the spiky New Zealander had finished socking it to them, he fired the big one: ‘How are you going to be remembered? How do you want to be remembered?’

They would go down in history come what may, either as the first Lions to be whitewashed in South Africa, over a period spanning three centuries, or the first to finish a tour here in a fashion which proved beyond even the mighty team of 1974. No exercise in beating the odds can have been greater than the one confronting Paul O’Connell and his men.

Doing it without four of their best players from Pretoria the previous week was one thing. Doing it at Ellis Park would be something else.

The All Blacks had shipped 86 points on their last two visits to the most inhospitable of places, where the Springboks lose on average once every 10 years and where they had never been beaten by a double-figure margin.

Therefore, to inflict a defeat upon the World Cup holders on a scale twice as great as any witnessed in their largest citadel appeared too far-fetched to imagine in the circumstances.

Many of those who made it possible will swear to their dying day that the Lions had the game won before they left the dressing room – Ugo Monye, for one. The reprieved English wing said: ‘When Warren lifted up the jersey and talked about the guys who will never play again, that really brought it home. You looked around and you saw the tears, you knew what it meant. Everyone was in the right place. From then on, losing was not going to be an option.’

Rob Kitson in the Guardian

Heartwarming sporting defeats are rare these days. Modern rugby union is seldom a game for romantics and the outcome is usually all that matters. Despite a 2-1 series loss, the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour has proved a vivid exception and every professional team could learn a lot from their example. When players as experienced as Phil Vickery and Stephen Jones insist they have never known a more life-enhancing tour, the Lions concept has surely been refreshed for years to come.

Victory in the final Test, by a margin that has not been exceeded in 118 years of this fixture, confirmed Ian McGeechan as rugby’s ultimate alchemist. Only a side which bonded tighter than any of its recent predecessors could have produced a performance of this calibre at the end of an achingly long season with a host of first-choice players missing.

There have been more obviously talented Lions squads than this one, but few have risen to the stiffest of challenges with more enthusiasm. In the process all sorts of myths have been buried: that northern-hemisphere rugby is stodgier than the southern equivalent, that endless hours on the training field are essential, and that the Lions are dead meat.

Former Lions hooker Brian Moore in the Daily Telegraph

The reason the Lions deserved this win was that, unlike in the second Test, they refused to allow their opponents back into the game after they started with far more cohesion and purpose. Had they not been able to subsume their bitter disappointments and failed again they would have deserved nothing; not for all their undoubted bravery and commitment.

Those who shouted loudest the previous weekend, that any adverse comment after defeat was whinging, have been quickest to claim the Lions beat a Springbok second XV. They forget their pre-match supremacist boasting that their reserves were better than the best the northern hemisphere could offer. Also, that many knowledgeable South African observers thought the multiple changes strengthened their team, particularly in the centres where the Lions had unarguably been superior.

In uttering these pathetic statements they fail to realise that therein necessarily lies an insult to the tourists far worse than the refusal to allow any Springboks to play in pre-Test games.

Chris Hewett in The Independent

Message of the tour: first, keep the man in the street involved by keeping ticket prices down. Second, keep pushing the four Home Unions for proper preparation time. Third, and most important, keep the faith. The Lions are special.


The 2009 Lions stuck together for a well-deserved third Test victory 

Former Lions lock and 2001 tour manager Donal Lenihan in the Irish Examiner

A series lost 2-1 is a hell of a lot better than a 3-0 white-wash. At least from this vantage point it certainly feels that way. In keeping with the way the South African public supported this tour it was rather ironic that John Smit raised the Unity Cup, the symbol of the series win, in a stadium left deserted by the Springbok support.

They were disgusted by their comprehensive, record-equalling 28-9 defeat, while 20,000 Lions fans stood in unison to acknowledge the efforts of a very honest group of players.

With South Africa making 10 changes to the side that triumphed in Pretoria last weekend, had the Lions lost this one it could have done irreparable damage. Instead it was a fitting end for a squad that has given everything throughout this tour and despite the absence of four key players lost in battle in the second Test – Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones – the Lions summoned sufficient reserves of energy and commitment to punish an arrogant Springbok side.

It was fitting that Paul O’Connell, who has endured some snide comments over the past few weeks, should lead the side by example with his best performance of the campaign. To a man the tour squad individually approached and hugged their leader while bidding an emotional farewell to an inspirational support base, which has also done their bit to enhance the Lions image.

A winning margin of 19 points has a certain resonance about it as that was the gap by which the Springboks led at one stage in the opening test in Durban when the Lions looked considerably out of their depth and one feared for their survival. The progress made since is well reflected in the 38-point turnaround.

Alex Spink in the Daily Mirror

Out into the cauldron of Ellis Park, where the Boks had not lost since 2001 and where the Lions, without a third Test victory in 20 years, last won in 1955.

The first sight they saw was their opponents wearing white armbands on which were scribbled ‘Justice’ in a bizarre protest at the banning from the match of their team-mate Bakkies Botha.

Justice, thought the Lions. We’ll have some of that. We don’t deserve to be two-down. We don’t intend to be remembered as the first team to be swept away by the Boks.

Tony Roche in The Sun

The Lions finally restored lost pride by blasting the Boks off Ellis Park – the hosts’ first defeat in their main stadium since 2001. And Ian McGeechan’s boys certainly deserved the standing ovation afforded them by as many South Africans as red-shirted travelling fans.

The triumph meant the Lions had outscored the world champions by 74 points to 63 over the three Tests and by seven tries to five. This hammering also equalled their record win over the Boks in Pretoria on the unbeaten tour of 1974.

Okay, the Lions lost the series 2-1 – but they showed what they are about on Saturday with a glorious display of commitment and passion.

A team minus world-class stars in Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts saw first Test starts for Martyn Williams, Andrew Sheridan, Riki Flutey and Joe Worsley. All delivered as the Lions took control.

Isolated victories, however, may be the destiny of future Lions tours. The problem McGeechan had to handle, and future Lions coaches will also face, is the length of modern Lions tours.

The last time a Lions trip ended in triumph was here, 12 years ago. But that tour lasted nearly eight weeks, not six. They played 13 games, not 10.

That gave the management priceless extra opportunities to see players in action, establish units and partnerships. This time McGeechan has been squeezed into the shortest Lions tour in living memory.
The shorter the tours, the tougher it is to win a series.

Yet, these Lions fly home black and blue, drained and in desperate need of a break – but proud that they gave everything.

David Hands in The Times

No one was entitled to expect what the Lions offered at Coca-Cola Park on Saturday. A record-equalling win – the 1974 Invincibles beat the Springboks by the same scoreline – was much more than a face-saving exercise against a much-changed opponent and also a statement of how far the 2009 Lions have come in six short weeks.

Does it mean they should have won the series? No, because had they won or drawn the second international in Pretoria a week earlier, this would have been a completely different South Africa and, in consequence, a different game. But the mere fact that they could have won the series gives rugby in Britain and Ireland much more credibility and the manner in which they played gives the lie to perceptions in the southern hemisphere of how rugby is played up north.

When the touring party was named, expectations of a series win over the world champions were not high. Yet they outscored the Springboks by seven tries to five in three matches, they played better, more exciting rugby and they have reignited the brand. Lions administrators, who would love to add two more games, including a fourth international, to the 2013 programme in Australia are unlikely to get their way – they have more chance of adding an extra week to help preparations for the international series – but the old-style tour is back on the map.

Gavin Rich for Super Sport

The Springbok campaign against the British & Irish Lions ended on a disappointing note – even though coach Peter de Villiers claimed afterwards that he learned something from the 28-9 defeat in Johannesburg.
Just what he learned is difficult to ascertain, unless it was the folly of making 10 changes for a match against a team as strong as the Lions were, and as determined as the tourists were to end their tour on a winning note.

For while the Bok coach may feel he learned from Coca-Cola Park which players are not up to it, what can he really say about the first choices who won the series? They got home in the second Test in Pretoria because of a late flurry when the Lions were in tatters following injuries and the ordering of uncontested scrums, and on a day when some of the players who were average in Johannesburg won the match for the Boks as replacements.

The Boks, by the admission of skipper John Smit, "never hit the buttons" in the first two Tests, and it would probably be fair to suggest that the Bok series win was underwhelming, rather than overwhelming, with the Lions ending the three matches having scored more points and more tries than their opponents.

As we know from 1997, when it was the reverse, that does not matter much – but what does matter is the number of areas where the Lions would have ticked their boxes where the Boks were unable to. There were simply too many areas and aspects of the game in this series where the Lions were better than the Boks, and the disturbing reality is that many of them relate to coaching.

While the Lions lost the series because of McGeechan’s selections, there was no denying that the Lions looked the much better drilled and slick combination. The Boks did well to score as many tries from first phase as they did, but apart from that this was a series where they escaped from jail mainly because of the brilliance of individuals.

Gerry Thornley in the Irish Times

Regrets, they’ll have a few, but, if only on Saturday at Ellis Park, they were too few to mention. This was the Lions’ redemption day, for the management, for Paul O’Connell, for Phil Vickery, Shane Williams and a host of others who will never wear the famous red jersey again. No unwanted first series whitewash in South Africa, no record nine matches without a win. The naysayers will have to do without those sticks.

Instead, they equalled the Lions’ record 28-9 win over South Africa in Pretoria, set by the legends of ’74 (when the try was worth four points), and at the Boks’ Ellis Park citadel, the ground where Nelson Mandela wore the jersey when they won the World Cup in 1995.

The performance and victory was a tribute to the togetherness and harmony engendered by the management, as well as to their coaching skills in the final week.

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