With just six weeks left until the start of the British and Irish Lions’ first visit to New Zealand in 12 years, I’ve looked back on some of the series’ greatest moments since the game turned professional.
July 2, 2005, Wellington, New Zealand
New Zealand 48 - 18 Lions
Okay, so let’s get the painful one out of the way first. There aren’t many people who would name the All Blacks biggest victory over the Lions as one of the greatest moments in Lions Tour history, but if you wanted to watch a single player in a complete class of their own, then sit back and watch the highlights of Dan Carter’s performance on that night in Wellington.
It may have been painful viewing, as Carter stuck 33 of the All Black’s 48 points on the Lions, but this was a young man aiming to prove a point; that point being that he was one of the greatest rugby players in the entire world. If you can detach yourself from the crushing emotion of losing the series in the second test – and surely 12 years is long enough? – then what you’ll witness is a determined 23-year old at the top of his game.
For anyone who appreciates a naturally skilled and able sportsman and can ignore the fact he’s playing for the other side, it’s an absolute gift to watch. If Jonny Wilkinson had held himself up as the best fly-half in the world after the 2003 World Cup victory v Australia, it was Carter’s 2005 Lions Series debut that would prove his crown wasn’t safe...
June 27, 2009, Pretoria, South Africa
South Africa 28 – Lions 25
Another defeat. But before you ask what I’ve been taking, The Lions second Test match in Pretoria must be one of the greatest, hardest-fought games of rugby ever.
Indeed, veteran Lions coach Ian McGeechan went as far as to say it was the greatest test match he’d ever seen, which tells you all you need to know.
Tensions ran high almost from kick-off. South African flanker Schalk Burger was lucky to escape a red card (though he did end up with an eight game ban) after eye-gouging Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald.
And from there, it just grew more intense and tenacious. For the next 60 minutes, the Lions played the best rugby of their tour but the turning point came when Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones both succumbed to injury, forcing the visitors’ commanding scrum to go uncontested.
From there, the Springboks regained control, while the Lions suffered further decimation. Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts also limped off the field.
There followed tries by Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie to put the Springboks in front, and although a late penalty by Stephen Jones levelled the scores, a moment of madness by Ronan O’Gara when he took out Fourie du Preez in the air (one he’ll never forget), allowed Francois Steyn a 53-metre penalty that decided a brutally contested game in the hosts’ favour.
June 28, 1997, Durban, South Africa
South Africa 15 - 18 Lions
The first Lions Tour since rugby turned professional and the series’ first visit to South Africa post-apartheid was always going to be a momentous occasion, but for fans of the boys in red, the result was better than many expected.
Indeed, it was one of the events that really got me back into rugby, having drifted away from the sport during my late teens.
Winning the first test match against South Africa in 1997 was a surprise to many. The tourists took the game in Cape Town with five Neil Jenkins penalties and tries from Matt Dawson and Alan Tait.
But winning the second match was a complete shock. South Africa were the reigning World Cup Champions, and after the first test upset they were expected to come out fighting.
And they did. The Springboks took command early, with two early tries, but again it was Welshman Jenkins who was the difference, repeating his five penalty feat.
Late in the game, it looked like a draw was on the cards, setting the tour up for a massive decider in Johannesburg the following Saturday.
Then, up popped Jeremy Guscott with a short drop goal. The Springboks posed a comeback back, but ultimately it was the man mountain, Lawrence Dallaglio, that got in the way. His try saving tackle in the 79th minute helping the ’97 Lions squad claim their place in the history books.
June 30, 2001, Brisbane, Australia
Australia 13 - 29 Lions
It was the Tour that had a promising start. And on a cool night in Brisbane, 20,000 touring fans were rewarded for their loyalty with a convincing 16-point victory over an Australian side that defended doggedly, but couldn’t fend off the Lion’s line speed.
Tries from Jason Robinson and Daffyd James put the Lions in control in the first half, the second of which was converted by the new first-choice fly-half, a young lad by the name of Jonny Wilkinson…
The Australians weren’t happy. As defending World Champions, the home crowd expected more, but Brian O’Driscoll and Scott Quinnell added another two tries to the visitors’ tally, both converted by the young man with the floppy hair who, unbeknown to the Aussies, would deliver a much harder blow to their pride in 2003.
The 2001 tour went downhill from there; discomfort in the Lions camp and internal arguments between players and coaching staff, ultimately, pulled them down. Yet, that evening in Brisbane was glorious, and gave us a glimpse of some future talent that would one day make us very proud indeed.
July 6, 2013, Sydney, Australia
Australia 16 - 41 Lions
The first two games in the 2013 Lions Tour to Australia were perhaps better than the one that won the series, but the final game was produced a fitting crescendo, and I still recall the butterflies I felt before kick-off as if I was on the field myself.
It’s one that I have a personal connection, with, as I was living and working in Australia at the time, and had been lucky enough to watch the first two tests live in Brisbane and Melbourne with my mate and neighbour, Irish Dave (rugby nicknames are always so original, you see…).
We didn’t have tickets for the final game in Sydney, so having witnessed Kurtley Beale gift the visitors the first game in the series with a slip of the foot he’ll probably never forget, and then an agonising evening in our temporary home city of Melbourne where Leigh Halfpenny had his own Beale moment, with what could have been a series-winning penalty dropping short of the posts, it was all set up for an intense decider.
And it didn’t bode that well initially, with Lions skipper Sam Warburton and vice-skipper Paul O’Connell both injured. Coach Warren Gatland also dropped Brian O’Driscoll, a decision for which Irish Dave and the rest of the clientele of the Irish Times Pub on Collins Street have yet to forgive him.
Indeed, Gatland’s decision to start 10 Welshmen was controversial in itself. The comprehensive 25-point victory less so, as the Lions took their first series victory in 16 years. It was an emotional moment, and one that led me to put my boots back on as a 35-year old veteran who hadn’t played for half his life. I haven’t looked back since.