x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

These British & Irish Lions must claw back a place in history

Without a series win since 1997, this touring party can write their names in folklore by beating Australia, writes Geoffrey Riddle.

Jeremy Guscott, right, kicked the winning drop-goal in the the second Test against South Africa at Kings Park in 1997 to win the game 18-15 - the last time the British & Irish Lions won a series. Getty Images
Jeremy Guscott, right, kicked the winning drop-goal in the the second Test against South Africa at Kings Park in 1997 to win the game 18-15 - the last time the British & Irish Lions won a series. Getty Images

It has been 16 years since Jeremy Guscott nailed the winning drop goal to hand the British & Irish Lions their last series success.

It was the second Test of three against South Africa in Durban, and Lawrence Dallaglio kept the 18-15 lead intact with a try-saving tackle to give the Lions only their fourth series win in the modern era, after the triumphs of 1971, 1974 and 1989.

Today, Guscott is going grey and Dallaglio has no hair at all, but both will remain forever in the pantheon of Lions greatness alongside JPR Williams, the great Wales fullback of the 1970s, Willie John McBride, who captained the most successful tour in 1974, and Finlay Calder, the 1989 skipper.

The Lions tour party left London on their latest odyssey on Monday and arrived in Hong Kong yesterday ahead of a five-week tour to Australia, where they lost the series 2-1 in 2001.

The Lions - who represent four separate countries, including divided Ireland, which unites on the rugby field - start their tour against the Barbarians in Hong Kong Stadium on Saturday.

As the "Baa-Baas" were thrashed 40-12 by England at Twickenham on Sunday, the first match of 10 should help ease in the Warren Gatland's squad.

The Lions then play Western Force in Perth on June 5 ahead of a schedule that sees them criss-cross Australia for a total of 10 matches.

Brian O'Driscoll was a key figure on the 2001 tour and the Irish centre understands intimately that it is high time that the best of Britain and Ireland registered another victory.

If the Lions do not win Down Under, New Zealand, who whitewashed the Lions in 2005, lie in wait in 2017, before the series returns to South Africa, where the Lions lost 2-1 in 2009.

"Twelve years on, I look back on what a missed opportunity it was, especially as we had them in the second Test and we didn't finish them off," O'Driscoll said."We gained back a little bit of the belief of what the Lions was about in 2009 by creating such a great series.

"Those games could have gone either way and from the franchise point of view, we need to win. Sixteen years is a long time to be talking about 1997 and we need to create fresh memories that people can talk about.

"It is time to kick on and the great thing about another opportunity is that there are no boundaries to what we can achieve."

In comparison to 12 years ago, the Lions have a tremendous chance to turn over their hosts.

Led by the totemic figure of John Eales and coached by Rod Macqueen, the 2001 Wallabies were a balanced and successful side who were officially the best team in the world.

They were also world champions, Tri Nations champions and the holders of the Bledisloe Cup for seeing off New Zealand. They also held the Mandela Cup for beating South Africa, as well as the Hopetoun Cup and Lansdowne Cup for holding the verdict over Scotland and Ireland, respectively.

Robbie Deans's current squad is in complete disarray.

Since the Rugby World Cup in 2011, his side have been hammered by France, New Zealand and South Africa and have lost to Scotland. Where Macqueen retired a national hero, a series defeat could signal the end of Deans's five-year reign as coach.

Deans has lost to injury two world-class flankers in David Pocock and George Smith, who played in the 2001 series, while Kurtley Beale, the talented fullback, continues to battle his demons, which include alcohol-related issues.

Although Deans has the option to add six more players to his squad in two weeks, for the moment, the mercurial fly-half Quade Cooper has been omitted.

"It's going to be vibrant like no Test match you've ever seen," Deans said last month.

"The ante's gone up. You look at the change in the body shapes now since 2001. They were racing sardines and now the backs are built like the forwards were.

"And then you bring the enthusiasm that will come with the teams and the context with the crowd and noise, it's going to be a great spectacle."

The spectacle of the Lions does not always include flowing rugby set to a philosophy of a Corinthian spirit.

McBride's policy of "one in, all in," during the 1974 tour whereby a call of "99" was uttered to spark simultaneous physical retaliation, once resulted in Williams running half the pitch to punch a Springbok forward.

Extreme examples of brutality are not restricted to the 1970s, either. In 2001, Duncan McRae experienced a fit of rage during New South Wales' tour match against the Lions that saw the Australian fly-half pin down Ronan O'Gara, his Lions opposite number, and rain punches down on him in one of the most sickening exhibitions of violence ever seen in the sport. It was at a time when media had not quite gone social and in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last year, McRae admitted how lucky he was that social networking had not yet taken off.

"I'd love to be able to explain it, but I just sort of tipped over the edge," he said. "I'm lucky there was no Twitter back then. I reckon I would have copped a lot of abuse.

"If I had stayed on the field, we probably had a chance to win that game. To let the guys down ... it's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

With injuries being part and parcel of rugby, it is clear that when the squads take to the field for the final Test in Sydney on July 6, the line-ups could look very different to those which start the Test series on June 22 in Brisbane.

The 2001 tour suffered horribly with injury, so much so that the week before the final and deciding Test, the team never trained together as a whole.

Johnny Wilkinson turned his back on this Lions tour in support of his club, Toulon, who play Castres in the final of the French Top 14 this Saturday, but could easily still make the line-up for the final Test in ANZ Stadium, where he drop-kicked England to World Cup glory in 2003.

"Johnny is committed to the final for Toulon, he is a hero out there," Gethin Jenkins, his Toulon teammate, said after joining the squad on Monday.

"Everything is centred around him there. There is even the Johnny merchandise shop; he's everywhere. We've had a few chats about it."

 

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