Against all the odds and amid a pandemic, The British & Irish Lions managed to successfully stage the 2021 Tour to South Africa.
Warren Gatland’s men were denied the support of the Sea of Red with travelling fans grounded by travel restrictions imposed due to Covid-19. But those players selected from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales did themselves proud in a mightily close Test match series which just tipped in favour of the Springboks.
Gatland’s side was skippered by the talismanic Alun Wyn Jones, who flew out to South Africa just three weeks after dislocating his shoulder in the pre-Tour 1888 Cup clash against Japan at Murrayfield.
Gatland called upon 1997 tourist Gregor Townsend as attack coach alongside his fellow Scotland coach Steve Tandy to take charge of the defence.
Welshman Robin McBryde, who toured Australia as a player in 2001, joined the coaching staff for the first time as assistant coach with the remit for the forwards having previously been an integral member of Gatland’s Wales set-up during a 13-year career in Cardiff.
Kicking consultant Neil Jenkins also reprised his role as assistant coach for the fourth successive Tour having previously been to South Africa in 2009, Australia in 2013 and New Zealand in 2017.
The squad’s initial meeting began with a successful training camp in Jersey where players were able to escape the clutches of the hotel and explore what the Channel Island has to offer.
A first competitive run-out for the Lions, excluding those involved in the Premiership final on the same day, came at BT Murrayfield against Japan. It was a first ever match in Scotland for the tourists, who successfully negotiated a spirited Brave Blossoms outfit to come out 28-10 winners.
Three of the four Lions tries were scored by debutants, including a lovely effort from versatile Irish forward Tadhg Beirne who sprinted under the sticks after being found with a deft pass from fly-half Dan Biggar.
The result meant it is now 13 Tours since the Lions last lost their opener but the encounter with the Japanese was not plain sailing because as well as the shoulder injury suffered by Jones, Welsh team-mate Justin Tipuric suffered his own shoulder problem that would rule him out of the Tour.
Two more Welshmen in Josh Navidi and Adam Beard were added to the touring party that immediately flew out to South Africa, with Tipuric and Jones, initially, staying in the UK.
Winger Josh Adams got his Tour off to a flyer with four tries in the opening match in Johannesburg as Gatland’s men trumped their namesakes Sigma Lions 56-14.
The youngest man on tour Louis Rees-Zammit, in charge of BIL the Lion, also crossed along with scrum-half Gareth Davies and Scottish duo Hamish Watson and Ali Price.
It was the first time two Scots had scored a try in the same game for the Lions since 1989. And although he did not touch down, captain on the day Stuart Hogg shone with a vitally important try-saving tackle on Sibusiso Sangweni, who he chased down five metres short of the line.
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The Lions were again comfortable winners against their next opponents, beating Cell C Sharks 54-7 at the same Emirates Airline Park venue in midweek.
Team selection was disrupted with eight last minute changes to the 23 just a couple of hours before kick-off after nine players were placed into isolation. Adams added a hat-trick to his soaring try tally and Duhan van der Merwe also crossed for three tries.
The same two sides were reacquainted after a Covid outbreak at the Bulls and Jamie George was given the honour of captaining the side from hooker.
Aided by a red card to Jaden Hendrikse, the Lions chalked up a 71-31 victory with Beirne scoring two, George himself crossing for a double and Anthony Watson showing his eye for the line with a further two tries.
Next came easily the biggest challenge so far for the tourists, as South Africa, also struggling for match practice given the limits imposed by impact of Covid-19 on their series with Georgia, named an incredibly strong South Africa ‘A’ side in Cape Town.
A total of 11 2019 Rugby World Cup winners lined up against the Lions, who were without the prolific Adams after he missed the game to witness the birth of his first child over Zoom.
And the South Africa ‘A’ squad inflicted the first defeat of the Tour on the Lions, winning 17-13 with one special moment from Cheslin Kolbe who left two defenders for dead after picking up a loose ball before passing for Lukhanyo Am to score.
The Lions rallied in the second half with a converted Wyn Jones score but came out second best in midweek, giving the squad a reminder of the size of the task at hand.
With Finn Russell struggling with injury, Harlequins and England fly-half Marcus Smith was added to the touring party and started the final warm-up fixture against the DHL Stormers.
He helped steer the side around the park to a 49-3 win in a game in which the Lions had seven unique try scorers, including Exeter Chiefs trio Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds.
It also marked the heroic return to action of Alun Wyn Jones as he made his comeback for the last 20 minutes off the bench, having returned to the touring party late after proving his fitness in sessions with Wales.
The injury was thought to have ended Jones’ Tour before it had even begun, and Conor Murray was named as replacement skipper with Beard called up but both locks went on to feature in the Test series.
Jones was named as captain in the starting XV for the first Test which featured several previously unseen, untried but exciting combinations including the centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Day.
Jones, the most-capped rugby union international of all time, crowned a remarkable turnaround in his fortunes by helping steer his side to a 22-17 victory in Cape Town. The Lions had mounted an impressive-second half comeback after trailing 12-3 following a try-less first half.
But, sparked by Test debutant Cowan-Dickie’s maul try and aided by the inspirational Player of the Match Maro Itoje, the men in red got back on track by drawing first blood against an ill-disciplined South Africa, who gave away eight penalties after the break.
A week later it was the turn of the ‘Bomb Squad’, the Springboks’ immensely physical bench, to put on a second-half masterclass, running out 27-9 winners.
Fly-half Handre Pollard contributed 17 points from the boot to square the series and deny the Lions the chance to emulate their 1997 predecessors at the very first opportunity.
The Lions were forced to use a ‘get out of jail free card’ and pushed into a decider, with opposition skipper Siya Kolisi denying Henshaw a try from Murray’s chip and chase in what proved to be a pivotal moment on the stroke of half-time.
The first-half lasted 63 minutes with a lack of continuity hurting the Lions and preventing the side from tiring out the powerful Springboks team.
The world champions completed a 2-1 series win in the deciding Test with 37-year-old fly-half Morne Steyn stepping off the bench to kick the winning penalty in a 19-16 victory, just as he had done in the second Test in 2009.
Kolbe once again showed his class by taking his sole opportunity and jinking down the wing, evading the recalled full-back Liam Williams and fending off Cowan-Dickie to dot down.
Despite the heartbreaking late defeat, Scottish star Russell’s free-flowing performance off the bench, on for the injured Dan Biggar early in the first-half, lit up the game and put the Lions on the front foot for large periods.
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The ambitious side regularly pointed to the corner but were unable to get over for scores that would have helped establish an unassailable lead, Ken Owens’ effort the only try the tourists managed.
As the trip concluded, Gatland – who missed out on successfully leading an unbeaten Tour to all three Southern Hemisphere nations – said: “There are players who haven’t been involved (in the Test series) but their experience from this will hold them in really good stead for their international teams and in four years’ time.
“A really good example is Robbie Henshaw, who I thought was excellent. He probably learnt from the experience four years’ ago and then brought him on, improved him as a player.
“I’m incredibly proud of my involvement and have been very fortunate. I’m very passionate about the Lions. I hope the new players have learnt a lot from this Tour, not just from playing.
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“But also from the players around them in terms of the top players in the squad, their professionalism and the way that they train and all the extras that they do.
“I think they would have benefitted from that. I think Marcus Smith is going to be a superstar in the game, I think he is incredibly talented – he has an incredible amount of talent.”