Lions can go in search of fresh prey with confidence
Australia was the perfect host for a tour which restored Lions’ credibility
Tour captain Sam Warburton poses with the Tom Richards Cup at the Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
About the only thing the Lions did wrong, from the hosts’ perspective, was for once win. Every other box, as usual, they ticked, generating a huge source of income for the Australian economy and in particular for the Australian Rugby Union, which hasn’t had experienced anything like this since the back-to-back Lions tour and World Cup of 2001 and ’03.
Along the way, the Lions helped set new records for attendances at all three Test venues, and revived the ailing profile of Australian rugby union, which judging by the print and TV coverage, is struggling even more than after the turn of the Millennium against the behemoths that are Rugby League and Aussie Rules.
Even the tourists’ first win in 16 years not only added further lustre to the commercial juggernaut that is the Lions, it assuredly upped the ante and whetted the appetite of New Zealand four years hence. The presence of the esteemed man from the New Zealand Herald for the entire series, thereby skipping the All Blacks-France third Test (admittedly a dead rubber) franked Warren Gatland’s claim that there was bigger interest in the Lions tour than the French tour.
That the Lions won is good not only for their own credibility, but also New Zealand, for it enhances their credibility – the thought of seeking a first Test series win in 20 years there, of all places, was almost too grim to contemplate.
Perceptions in Ireland may not be so positive, nor indeed Scotland, and this was indeed very much a Welsh-driven success. The problems weren’t all of the Irish players’ own making, what with injuries at various junctures to Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell, Seán O’Brien, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney, whose tour never got off the ground really, and likewise Rory Best after his late call-up, while of course Brian O’Driscoll being denied his farewell hurt most of all.
Yet O’Brien and Bowe came through, Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray (whom came out as a Poor Man’s Mike Phillips, goes back as a Rich Man’s Mike Phillips, for had there been a fourth Test he’d have started) go home better players, and the experience ought also to benefit Simon Zebo.
The roots of this triumph were undoubtedly planted in 2009, as response to the disastrous tour of NZ in 2005, with Sir Clive Woodward, Alastair Campbell and Big Is Good and all that. In mitigation of Woodward, no-one could have guided the Lions to a series win eight years ago, not least after losing their two totems Lawrence Dallaglio in the game against Bay of Plenty and Brian O’Driscoll in the opening moments of the Test series. But for all of that the Lions became dislikable as well as bad losers on that tour.
Huge credit is due to Gerald Davies and Ian McGeechan for re-instating old-school Lions values and putting in sufficient foundations to ensure there would be some continuity this year. Central to that was bringing in Warren Gatland as an assistant coach.
Many of the backroom staff remained, but the medical and S&C staff were expanded as Gatland, typically, placed a huge premium on conditioning; the addition of Dr Eanna Halvey (a key figure in Tommy Bowe’s unlikely, if fairytale, recovery) being evidence of that.
So it was that the Lions bucked the trend of 2001, when failing to score in the last quarter of all three Tests, and, up until the third Test, on this tour. Prior to Saturday, they had been limited to one penalty in each of the last quarters against the Reds, the Brumbies and the preceding Tests. Here Sexton’s superbly crafted 56th-minute try was the spark for a three-try 19-point salvo which turned an edgy game into a thumping.
That was a tribute to the professionalism and conditioning of the squad, the expanded S&C and medical back-up, along with the planning which incorporated that break in Noosa as well as reviving the team and bench with new fresh personnel. So much for Sir Clive’s criticism of the Noosa time-out, from his ivory tower.
There’s a feeling that the non-Test games were largely a waste of time, but the way the under-strength Queensland Reds went about having a go at the Lions with that breathless opening quarter in a vibrant Suncorp Stadium and all the fuss surrounding Quade Cooper (and how much it meant to the attendant non-playing Reds, such as Will Genia as a coaching “waterboy”) was memorable, as was the Waratahs’ physically provocative and irreverent approach, and indeed the Lions’ compelling response to it.
There was plenty of travelling (11 flights from Hong Kong onwards) and Australia has become a very expensive country since the John Howard years. A litre bottle of water cost from AUS$4.50 (€3.20) upwards in a 7-11. A meal for three was the same price as car hire for three days.
The Howard years have also turned Australia into a nanny state. Regulations piled upon rules, rigidly enforced by heavy-handed men in bibs, bouncers, police or whatever. Parking fines, speeding tickets, etc are handed out like confetti.
Yet it is still a brilliant country to tour. The sun shines regularly, even in winter. The cities are varied and vibrant. The food and wine is superb. They have a healthy, outdoor way of beach life, particularly evident in resorts such as Noosa.
However, their rugby has problems, and without 30-40,000 Lions fans, they’ll struggle to fill the ANZ Stadium for the opener to the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup (which they haven’t won since 2002) against New Zealand.
Australian sport, public and media alike are not patient with teams who don’t win, their scrum Achilles’ heel has returned and, moving on to a tricky World Cup group also containing England and Wales in two years, they have serious discipline issue with players such as Cooper, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale.
Yet the scrum problem is not as endemic of a glaring weakness as it perhaps was England destroyed them in Marseilles in the World Cup quarter-finals in 2007. James Horwill has emerged as a leader of substance, likewise Ben Mowen, and the likes of David Pocock and Scott Higginbotham will return, while they have Genia and a host of talented backs as well as a new poster boy in Israel Folau (who adorned the cover of the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday and who they should break the bank to keep).
They also have some good coaches coming through in the likes of Michael Cheika and Tony McGahan, as Irish rugby can testify, even if they struggle to make five franchises successful.
Indeed, by contrast, the midweek games in New Zealand will never be taken lightly, and once again the same handicaps will be placed before the 2017 Lions’ coaching staff. Warren Gatland’s key recommendation will be that the squad be given a couple of weeks to prepare before departure. But this entails either the hosts conceding to do away with a couple of the warm-up games, or the Premiership and Pro12 clubs bringing forward their finals.
As the current Sanzar Agreement covers the 2017 tour as well, and the clubs will hardly give an inch, there’ll be much bluster but, most probably little change. Just as well they won this one so.