Saturday, January 22

If the Lions are unsuccessful at first, that’s basically it for the series | British and Irish lions

YYou could write the definitive book on life and rugby based only on the initial tests of a series of British & Irish Lions. It would cover every emotion, from unthinkable glory to ashen regret, but a consistent thread would tie the narrative together. The Lions team that manages to lose the first test will likely have at least four years to regret what it may have been.

Only once since 1900 has a Lions team won a series having lost the opening rubber. That was in 1989 in Australia when Finlay Calder’s team came back from metaphorical death with a little unscheduled help from David Campese and Greg Martin. In South Africa there is still no descriptive precedent. If the Lions are not successful at first, that’s basically it.

A look at the old scoreboard in the professional era alone is instructive. In 1997, the Lions used their luck to wins the first test 25-16 and won the second as well, courtesy of Jeremy Guscott’s drop-goal in Durban. In 2001, with Jason Robinson and Brian O’Driscoll scoring tries for all ages, they won the opening event at the Gabba only to lose the series 2-1.

And in 2005? Who can forget the bitter ice storm that hit Christchurch, the early departure of the injured Lions captain O’Driscoll, or the rapid collapse of the best plans laid out by the tour team? Then there was 2009 when the South African scrummagers did a good number on their opponents and despite their most valiant efforts, there was no turning back.

It was a less disciplinary story from the tourists’ perspective in 2013, with Warren Gatland’s first tour as head coach producing a 2-1 series victory based on a desperately tight 23-21 victory in the first Test in Brisbane. As close as they came in 2017, winning the second Test against the All Blacks and drawing the last in circumstances that increased credulity, the old truism held its own after an initial 30-15 loss in Auckland. The first cut, once again, was the deepest.

Why is this so? By definition, it takes time for a Lions party to stabilize. These days there is even less time to work on the precious alchemy that makes four nations one. And their opponents know it. Springboks, in particular, are even more dangerous with a little boost. The Boks occasionally lose at home, but the fact that it happens on successive weekends represents a shocking loss of face. Aside from a pre-World Cup aberration at home to Argentina in 2015, it is necessary to go back to 2008 to locate the most recent example.

Even then, having lost to New Zealand and Australia in Cape Town and Durban respectively, the Lions rallied hard to beat Australia 53-8 at Ellis Park the following week. The difference this time around is that all three tests in this Lions series are now expected to take place at sea level due to the Covid-19 infection rates in Gauteng. Taking altitude out of the equation by staying in Cape Town won’t leave the Lions heartbroken.

However, in the end, it is less the comforting sight of a nearby ocean that shapes the fate of the Lions as thinking clearly under pressure and understanding how to defuse the tactical threats of their opponents. In his autobiography, Phil Vickery admitted that the Lions hadn’t particularly cared about Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira prior to the first test in Durban in 2009. Only once the game started did the alarms go off when Vickery, a winner of the World Cup six years earlier. , found himself being illegally fired through the scrum ceiling. By the time he was replaced five minutes into the second half, the damage was done. As Vickery said after being called in for the final test: “When your mom, your wife and your sister send you text messages to tell you that they still love you, you know things have not gone too well.”

How desperately thin the line can be between triumph and disaster. Even in 1997, the Lions were under intense pressure in the first three scrums of the series and owed a huge amount to the Matt Dawson dummy who completely fooled everyone. In 2009, however, they were less fortunate, losing 26-21 despite outscoring their hosts by three attempts to two. “We are in the place where Lions never want to be in a series of three tests,” Gatland wrote later. “One less, with the prospect of being dead seven days later.”

It was to prove too tight a corner, Morne Steyn’s long-range penalty last gasp resolved one of the great modern Tests that ended 28-25 in favor of the Boks. The Lions played the final test 28-9 but, as Gatland later put it, the sweetness of that victory could never be completely satisfying. And now here we are, 12 years later, about to witness the final compelling opening chapter. Jump early, Gatland will tell his players, or prepare for a big disappointment.

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