Monday, 6 July 2009

Lions' roaring redemption song draws series of great and gruesome to an enthralling end

Pride is a term tossed about too often in sporting cliché, but the Lions restored theirs with a stirring 28-9 victory in the final match of an absorbing tour of South Africa.

Smarting from an agonising 28-25 defeat in the previous Test, the tourists were galvanised by a collective pain and feeling that a golden chance of a series win had been missed.

As the dust settled on the Ellis Park pitch, there was a buoyant feeling rare for a losing side, perhaps underlined by the sense of records set straight, a little justice regained.

Mike Phillips gets to grips with Heinrich Brussow

The series showcased the best and worst of a sport magnificent and brutal in equal measure. The second Test in particular will be remembered for years; a titanic battle lifted to stratospheric heights by both teams’ attacking prowess, whilst simultaneously dragged into the gutter by disputation and cowardice.

Despite the brilliance of Rob Kearney and Bryan Habana’s tries, even this humdinger will be tainted by Schalk Burger’s gouging of Luke Fitzgerald’s eyes in the first minute. That linesman Bryce Lawrence could only recommend “a yellow card at least”, and that referee Christophe Berdos could not summon the bravery – no, just the common sense – to show a red card, only compounded the debacle.

Controversy abounded in the final Test too. South Africa’s decision to sport white ‘justice’ armbands (in support of the banned Bakkies Botha) was an ignorant statement, belligerently rich for a team whose infantile siege mentality continues to erode an already damaged reputation.

If their support of Botha smacked of insecurity, their coach’s apparent toleration of Burger’s actions was just stupid.

Peter de Villiers proved a PR disaster for South African rugby. Claiming that gouging is “part of the game”, he showed himself to be not only myopic but woefully out of touch. If de Villiers still feels that his side were not given enough credit for their series win, a good starting place for him to find reason why would be the mirror.

After defending the indefensible, de Villiers then backtracked and reiterated his comments with dizzying confusion, before concluding with an unconvincing homage to the tourists: “I always said they were a brilliant Lions team.”

The class of 2009 may not be heralded in the same way as their 1974 predecessors but their fiercely competitive displays will have helped quieten doubts about the viability of Lions tours.
The victory will also have eased worries on a personal level. Phil Vickery, battered by fans and press alike after his mauling at the hands of Tenda ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira, rose to the occasion admirably by overwhelming his tormentor in the scrum.

There was catharsis for Shane Williams and Ugo Monye as well, with the two wingers scoring between them three crucial tries of real class.

Such a bright ending points to 2013, and springs hope of a triumphant series in Australia. With Alun-Wyn Jones, Jamie Heaslip and Tom Croft likely to be present, the pack will be a hardened, formidable proposition. Meanwhile, backs Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts and Kearney will already be thinking about piercing Wallaby defences.

With reputations restored and the foundations laid for an encouraging future, the atmosphere among and around the Lions is an understandably positive one.

And this wave of optimism is epitomised by arguably the most redeemed of all tourists, Vickery, who summarised the lasting core values of a Lions tour: “I can honestly say I have never been on a tour with so many good men. We’ve put a huge amount of pride back into the Lions shirt.”

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