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.