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The Lions Legacy

July 6, 2013

If there was one thing that was associated with the 2012 Olympics it was the idea of legacy. Great sporting events can change the world and the way they are remembered and their fingerprint on history is perhaps the most important achievement of all.

Of all the sporting events that take place The Lions tour takes its legacy more seriously than any other. But Ian McGeechan can tell you about all that better than I can.

The 2013 Lions Tour was in danger of leaving a disappointing legacy. Any Lions tour I have seen has brought the best out of the players involved. Even in 2005 with the thumping they took at the hands of the All Blacks, there were some terrific performances; we were just outclassed. This Lions tour hadn’t seemed to do the same. The early matches had seen the maturing of players like Mako Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Stuart Hogg among others. But when the Test series came around, the overall feel was one of unfulfilled potential. The first two Tests were displays  of stuttering, edgy misfiring. The final and deciding Test became of paramount importance. Being as heavily favourited as this British side was; and the heartbreak of the 2009 tour, the result was all important in Sydney.

It would, however, have been a shame to come away from Australia with arguably the worst performing Test side in modern Lions history; even despite eking out some form of victory. I think we all would have taken it; but the legacy would have been impaired. For me at least there always would have been a sour taste of “what if”? Winning badly is not what has made the Lions tour the grandest institution in all of rugby.

This meant that performance in the grand scheme of things became almost every bit as important as the result. 2009, despite being such a devastating loss, is still rightly considered one of the great Lions tours. The character and the determination on show made it still feel special. These were two characteristics that hadn’t been shown thus far in 2013. It had come in dribs and drabs but not as a whole.

One could argue that the contentious issue of Warren Gatland’s gambling selection made performance even more necessary. Imagine if we had won, but the influx of fresh players had been poor. The criticism would have been immense. The tour would be remembered for the regret denying what could have been so great. It would have almost somewhat tarnished the great victories that are engrained in rugby folklore. In the first two Tests, there had been no real sense of urgency. The only moments that come to mind are Tom Croft’s frenzied charge downs in the final minutes of a losing effort. Lions tours should see this commitment from every player for every minute they are on the pitch. With the absence of Paul O’Connell, Sam Warburton and Brian O’Driscoll for July 6th, the question was: did the Lions have the leadership to manufacture this commitment. In review of the match I think it is therefore appropriate to begin with a review of the captain.

Alun Wyn Jones was shown talking to his team before the match began and he looked inspired. He certainly brought this onto the field. A display worthy of Man Of The Match in my opinion saw him produce a Martin Johnson like presence. He was at every ruck, he was carrying, he was making tackles and he was effective at all of these. It was a captain’s lead; from the front. His engine room partner Geoff Parling put to rest any doubts of his physicality by matching his captain for commitment. I’ve mentioned this before, but surely a captain’s berth awaits him on his return to international rugby.

The area of the most fervent selection debate since before the tour began was in the back row, and finally it seemed to be correct. Warburton’s expertise over the ball would have been missed if it weren’t for an all round masterpiece from Sean O’Brien. Like Wyn Jones he was everywhere and even securing a couple of breakdown turnovers to justify the 7 on his back. His tackle count was head a shoulders above any other man. Lydiate carried on his ruthless enforcing and the introduction of Toby Faletau screamed out better late than never. The way he earns the crucial hard yards was outstanding, and the way he buys time for his support to reach him is at the top level of world rugby. To round off this summary of the scrum, how about the front row? Corbisiero and Jones may just about be the most intimidating prop duo on planet Earth. That’s right South Africa. Two more MOTM contenders single handedly put Australia just about of reach early on with scrummaging reminiscent of the 2007 quarter final with England. And with Arch Marksman and Man of the Series Leigh Halfpenny, every scrum was worth 3 points. I was cheering Lions knock-on’s after the first ten minutes.

Besides Halfpenny’s guaranteed consistency, things behind the scrum did not go as well as will be remembered. The introduction of Roberts gave us a gain line option that was not taken advantage of in the first half. Two reoccurring problems were at the root of this. Phillips was again woeful. His kicking gave the chasers no options and if there is one team you don’t want to kick badly to, it is Australia. As always, when we allowed them time on the ball they were dangerous. Their footwork repeatedly put them behind our defensive line without necessarily making outright breaks. Once they got within striking distance our line it seemed inevitable that a sidestep from O’Connor, or Beale would result in a five pointer. Phillips also dithered badly on the ball at the base and his power game was used mostly to get him out of trouble rather than as a threat in its own right. The second issue was Sexton’s depth. In the blue of Leinster and green of Ireland he is one of the flattest, most threatening tens in the game. In the red of the Lions he stood off, and frequently took the ball standing still. The lines being run outside of him were unimaginative; two options at most. There was an occasion where North got the ball in his hands from first phase and ran ten yards, and still didn’t make the gain line. Even the beast he is could not be asked to do this. The backs lacked cohesion and timing which ended in a few spilt balls. Luckily this usually meant a scrum penalty so these mistakes went largely unpunished.

Perhaps it was due to the injuries and lack of continuity throughout the tour but it took until the second half for the backs to click. The first convincing dummy line resulted in a wide pass to Davies in space who made the most of the rare wide running. He straightened and gave and Halfpenny was left a two on one to put Sexton over the line. This was also the first time in the game that Sexton had his “two touch” game in operation. Once again, Sexton’s chipping game posed questions of the Aussies but it was the left boot of centre Jonathan Davies that gave us the best tactical edge. Time and again he achieved great distance, and landed the ball on grass, showing real vision with the likes of Beale, Mogg and Genia on the pitch. It was his deep central kick that put pressure on the Aussies return kick giving Halfpenny the time for another incisive counter resulting in another try for North. Two other factors in the build up were the two half back substitutions. Murray came on early after more glaring errors from Phillips and made an immediate impact with quicker service and superb timing of his delivery to Roberts. This showed the ease with which the right combinations could carve up the opposition. Farrell’s first touch took the ball on the run, several yards flatter than the first choice stand-off. Suddenly, Roberts was further over the gain line than he had been thus far. When this happens off set piece, the resulting phases can’t fail to put the defence up against it. If there was one disappointment by this stage it was that the Lions didn’t have any more matches to come.

The Aussies in this series had played as well as could be expected of such an untested outfit. With some continuity in selection they could prove to be a real handful. The Lions on the other hand were always bound to be superior if they could implement their structures efficiently. We always had more gears to move up, and the score line reflected it. This was truly one of the great Lions performances. The legacy will endure for the right reasons now. The drama and intrigue created by the nervy first two encounters are made to look simply poetic in the face of the highest Test score they have ever produced. It also secured the legacy of one the great Lions of all time. The Lions has never been about one man, but Brain O’Driscoll was the most talked about man in the preview to this match. Ian McGeechan once said that his ultimate Lion was Jason Leonard. Not simply for his play in the Tests, but for his support when not selected. There is great store set in the unity of the Lions camp. The positivity of the players not included plays a huge role in this the last professional touring side. O’Driscoll’s impact as a Lion will have been relevant in this victory. His absence can only have inspired others to play for him. He is a character to be rallied behind, and his positive professionalism in this final tour of his standout career is testament to his dedication to the team collective. No one has ever deserved a winning Lions tour on their CV more so than BOD and now he has it, even if he didn’t achieve it in his ideal way. But perhaps his victory is all the more deserved by his embodiment of what the Lions tour really means.

It is fitting therefore that the send off for this Lions hero was one of greatness. A squad finally coming together and performing to the lofty heights expected of them. The fact and the manner of this victory has sealed the reputation of Warren Gatland, the career of Brian O’Driscoll and most importantly the legacy of the Lions. This tour is the first tour that has not featured some link to the Invincibles of ’74. With New Zealand four years away, we can expect an even greater challenge and an even greater tour from the new generation of British and Irish Lions.

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