The 2001 tour of Australia was a heart-breaking one for the Lions. A case of what might have been but ultimately never was, the tourists came so close to a second successive series victory only to suffer an agonising defeat.
Britain and Ireland’s elite travelled Down Under as massive under dogs at a time when the Wallabies were World Champions and boasted a star-studded line up packed with experience and class.
Graham Henry was named as the first overseas coach in Lions history having earned an impressive reputation with Wales but the decision was met with criticism in many quarters as sections of the press and public alike argued that an Irishman or a Brit should always be handed the reigns ahead of a foreigner.
That controversial appointment seemed to have been largely forgotten about when the Lions began the tour by putting more than 200 points on their first two opponents but it soon reared its ugly head when things started to go array.
Rumours of discontent in the camp were rife before newspaper columns and player diaries threatened to ruin the tour but the Lions somehow still produced one of their best-ever performances in the opening Test.
In front of what looked to be a home crowd thanks to overwhelming British and Irish support in Brisbane, the Lions cruised to a 29-13 victory at The Gabba, scoring four tries and shocking the rugby world in the process.
That victory looked destined to lead to series success, especially after the Lions led 11-6 at the mid-point of the second Test in Melbourne. But while the Lions were imperious for much of the first 120 minutes of Test action, they went to sleep in the next 40 as the Wallabies racked up 29 second-half points at the Colonial Stadium to level the series.
What followed was sheer desolation for the Lions as the hosts edged a thrilling final Test 29-23 in Sydney to steal a series that the tourists had seemed in total control of just over a week earlier.
And while little was expected of the Lions prior to departure, at least as far as the Australian public was concerned, the 2001 tour will go down in history as a missed opportunity.
A little bit of history
In the year that the Lions made their first tour with a squad in which every player was a full-time professional, Islamic terrorists carried out the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania killing close to 3,000 innocent people; US President George Bush Junior subsequently declared a ‘war on terror’; Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted by a Scottish court in the Netherlands for his role in the Lockerbie bombing; Slobodan Miloševi?, the former president of Yugoslavia, surrendered to police and would later be tried on charges of war crimes; US millionaire Dennis Tito became the world's first space tourist; Labour won the UK General Election by a landslide and Apple launched the iPod, while Lions lock Gordon Brown, legendary Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman, revered sports commentator Brian Moore, English dramatist Anthony Shaffer and Beatles band member George Harrison all died and Abu Ali Mustafa, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was assassinated.
The Lions arrived in Australia five years after John Howard’s election as Australian Prime Minister ended 13 years of Labour rule; four years after Tasmania legalised homosexuality; two years after the Australian people rejected the chance to become a Republic via a referendum; a year after Sydney had hosted a hugely successful Olympic Games and in the same year that Australia would claim a 4-1 Ashes series victory on English soil.
Australia fought back to win a compelling series
Did you know?
The Lions began the tour with a 116-10 thrashing of Western Australia, the first time they had registered a century of points in their 113-year history.
The 29 points scored by the Lions in the first Test in Brisbane was the highest by the tourists against any of the southern hemisphere giants in 35 years and their second highest in history.
In contrast, the 35-14 defeat a week later was their most comprehensive reverse against the Wallabies.
Matt Burke’s 11 penalties in the series remains a record against the Lions – not bad for a player who was only on the bench for the first Test.
Martin Johnson became the first player to skipper the Lions on more than one tour when he captained the party Down Under.
This was the tour in which Brian O’Driscoll announced his arrival on the world stage. The then 22-year-old Ireland centre had already scored a stunning hat-trick in a Five Nations win in Paris a year earlier but his first Lions adventure made him a global star.
O’Driscoll was simply sensational for much of the Test series, with his sidestepping solo score in the first Test the highlight of a remarkable individual tour. That particular try will go down in history as one of the greatest ever scored by a Lion and will be remembered long after O’Driscoll calls time on an illustrious career.
Despite starting the tour at full back, the Blackrock College and Leinster magician formed an ever-present midfield partnership with countryman Rob Henderson and returned home with so much to smile about despite the lingering pain of series defeat.
Brian O'Driscoll was sensational on his first tour Down Under
The 2001 Lions squad was dominated by Englishmen, with the future world champions making up exactly half the 36-man party that left for Australia.
In addition to the 18 Englishmen in Henry’s squad, the Wales coach selected nine players from his adopted country alongside six Irishmen and just three Scots.
A further two Irish, two Scots and two English players were called up during the tour, with Scott Gibbs the solitary Welshman to win a late invitation.
Gibbs, a Lions hero in South Africa four years earlier, had been the most high-profile omission from Henry’s initial squad, while Scotland youngster Simon Taylor had been the surprise selection. The 21-year-old back rower only made his international debut a few months prior to departure and was a far from well-known commodity outside his homeland.
The other major talking point among selection centred on rugby league convert Jason Robinson whose second spell in union had only begun in November 2000. Robinson had experienced a previous loan period at Bath but that in itself had been far from successful and the former Wigan star had yet to make a start for his country prior to being handed a chance among Britain and Ireland’s very best.
One strange fact to come out of selection was that Bath provided both full backs in Matt Perry and Iain Balshaw and Saracens contributed two locks in Danny Grewcock and Scott Murray, while the arrival of the replacements meant Leicester gave the Lions two flankers in Neil Back and Martin Corry and Swansea two centres in Mark Taylor and Gibbs.
Iain Balshaw Bath and England
Matt Perry Bath and England
Ben Cohen Northampton and England
Dafydd James Llanelli and Wales
Dan Luger Saracens and England
Jason Robinson Sale and England
Tyrone Howe Ulster and Ireland*
Mike Catt Bath and England
Will Greenwood Harlequins and England
Rob Henderson Wasps and Ireland
Brian O'Driscoll Leinster and Ireland
Mark Taylor Swansea and Wales
Scott Gibbs Swansea and Wales*
Neil Jenkins Cardiff and Wales
Ronan O'Gara Munster and Ireland
Jonny Wilkinson Newcastle and England
Matt Dawson Northampton and England
Austin Healey Leicester and England
Rob Howley Cardiff and Wales
Andy Nicol (Glasgow and Scotland)*
Jason Leonard Harlequins and England
Darren Morris Swansea and Wales
Tom Smith Brive and Scotland
Phil Vickery Gloucester and England
Dai Young Cardiff and Wales
Phil Greening Wasps and England
Robin McBryde Llanelli and Wales
Keith Wood Harlequins and Ireland
Gordon Bulloch Glasgow and Scotland*
Dorian West Leicester and England*
Jeremy Davidson Castres and Ireland
Danny Grewcock Saracens and England
Martin Johnson Leicester and England (captain)
Scott Murray Saracens and Scotland
Malcolm O'Kelly Leinster and Ireland
Neil Back Leicester and England
Colin Charvis Swansea and Wales
Lawrence Dallaglio Wasps and England
Richard Hill Saracens and England
Scott Quinnell Llanelli and Wales
Simon Taylor Edinburgh and Scotland
Martyn Williams Cardiff and Wales
Martin Corry Leicester and England*
David Wallace Munster and Ireland*
To view the full list of fixtures and results from the 2001 tour, simply click here