Simon Shaw believes the 2009 Lions achieved something just as important as winning a Test series by putting the pride back into the famous red jersey.
Britain and Ireland’s elite may have fallen agonizingly short of a series success against the Springboks three summers’ ago but they returned home from South Africa with a huge amount of respect.
The Lions not only produced a scintillating brand of rugby on their 10-match tour, they also came within a whisker of toppling the then World Champions in their own backyard.
A narrow loss in the first Test in Durban was followed by a heartbreaking 28-25 defeat to a last-minute penalty in Pretoria but a victory followed in the final rubber as the Lions signed off by equaling their biggest ever win over the Boks.
And with the trip to the Republic having followed a difficult and disappointing all-round adventure in New Zealand back in 2005, Shaw is convinced the overall impact of the Sir Ian McGeechan led ‘09 tour was just what the Lions needed.
“Geech spoke about doing exactly that – putting the pride back in,” said Shaw.
“Whether or not we were going to win that Test series, doing that was really important.
“Certainly for me and a number of other players who had been on both the 2005 and 2009 tours, it reinvigorated our desire to play for the Lions. It showed exactly what playing for the Lions is about and I think that had been a bit lost in 2005.
“From an outsider’s view, it was probably the same. People look at the Lions as the last parts of the amateur days coupled with the new standard of professional rugby. It’s about trying to keep the ethos of the game alive but at the same time trying to produce higher standards of rugby. I think we achieved that in 2009.”
Simon Shaw was an outstanding tourist in 2009
Shaw was the only member of the triumphant 1997 tour to return to South Africa on the Lions’ most-recent outing.
The giant second row, who was with Bristol when he first toured with the Lions and London Wasps last time out, was in sensational form in 2009.
Having been left out of the matchday 22 for the first Test, Shaw won the man-of-the-match award for a stunning solo display in the second before also impressing in the third.
Those two end of tour appearances capped a remarkable turnaround for the veteran World Cup winner who missed out on a Test spot 12 years earlier. Shaw was ignored altogether for the 2001 tour of Australia and was only called up as a replacement for the injured Malcolm O’Kelly when the Lions headed to New Zealand in ’05.
But while his individual experiences in terms of Test time may have been different in 2009 to 1997, Shaw insists almost everything else was the same between the latest tour and one of the most-talked about in more than 120 years of Lions history.
“I went on both tours and they were almost identical, bar the result,” added Shaw.
“The feeling was the same. They were the two best tours I’ve ever been on, in terms of the rugby, the overall experience, the travel and the experience of the country.
“You lose that in modern day rugby because so many tours are in and out and you very rarely get to see the country or meet people from different areas.
“The Lions is very much the last bastion of the amateur days. It needed the personnel, especially the coaching staff and the management staff, who were important in bringing that feeling back in 2009. I think they did a fantastic job.”
Shaw also toured South Africa way back in 1997
One of the men credited with putting the pride back into the Lions in ’09 is Wales boss Warren Gatland. The New Zealander travelled to South Africa as one of McGeechan’s trusted assistants and subsequently won a huge amount of praise for his work behind the scenes.
Gatland showed Shaw and co that he knows what it means to be a Lion, even if his previous experiences of the tourists came from playing against them rather than for them back in 1993.
The former Waikato and All Black hooker is in the running to be named head coach for the 2013 tour to Australia and Shaw is convinced his former Wasps coach would be a good bet to lead the Lions Down Under.
“I very much enjoyed working with him in South Africa. I’ve achieved a hell of a lot under Gats so I’d always back him 100 per cent. What he’s done with Wales in the brief time he’s been there is amazing as well.
“He really understands the ethos of the Lions. He’s a very down to earth coach. He doesn’t accept egos and he makes everyone feel like they’re on an even playing field.
“He understands rugby, plain and simple. Whether it’s Lions rugby or junior club rugby, he’s been there and done it.”
Whoever ends up leading the Lions against the Wallabies, Shaw insists one thing is already certain: he’ll be watching in one way or another.
“I’ll be there without a doubt, whether it’s as a supporter or on a hospitality tour, I’ll be there.
“It’ll be a fantastic tour – it always is. You very rarely get something in sport nowadays as special as the Lions.
“Perhaps there’s the Olympics in terms of grandiose events but there’s very few occasions left like that in modern day sport. Wherever a Lions tour is held, whether it’s South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, it’s always very special.”