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British and Irish Lions Classics - the 2009 tour to South Africa

April 30th, 2020Rugby
If you happen to have been a fan of the Lions for three quarters of your lifespan as I have, the return of the British and Irish Lions to South Africa has all the hallmarks of a revenge tour. Meant in the most sporting manner you understand and by the way might I remind you tickets and hotel packages will go on sale soon. The last tour to South Africa ran from May to July 2009, including a three-match Test series in which the British and Irish Lions played their hosts in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg. They also took on six provincial teams, along with a game against South Africa's A team, the Emerging Springboks.

In terms of results, The Lions won all six provincial matches and drew with the Emerging Springboks, 13–13, an excellent result for South Africa’s stars in waiting.

The Test series results were tight in the first two games, with South African taking the honours beating the Lions 26–21 in the first Test, and then 28–25 in the second Test. Finally the tables turned in the third Test which the Lions won 28–9.

Nevertheless, it was the second test that shone through as the highlight of the series, which incidentally the Lions had led until the 76th minute. It was at that point when the tourists suddenly went 25–22 behind, and the game turned into a thriller. Two minutes after that, Stephen Jones took cool and clinical advantage of a penalty decision to tie the sides on 25 points apiece with only a couple of minutes left. The clock ticked down, two minutes into injury time, and with a draw looking inevitable the referee awarded the Springboks a penalty 52 metres out. Exhibiting nerves of steel, Morné Steyn set about his build up as if this was a club match, trotted forward, made perfect contact with the boot and sent a monster of a kick sailing through the uprights to win the match 28–25.

History behind the Lions 2009 South Africa tour

Following confirmation of the tour by the South African Rugby Union in September 2007, Lions chief executive John Feehan announced in the November that there would be no Test match played on home soil prior to departure, as had been the case with New Zealand in 2005. He also went on to say that the total Lions squad would be smaller than in 2005 with both fewer players and support staff travelling to South Africa.

Gerald Davies was appointed tour manager and Ian McGeechan as head coach, with Munster captain and Ireland lock, Paul O'Connell named captain of the squad.

The tour schedule was subsequently published jointly by the Lions and the South African Rugby Union (SARU) in April 2008. Interestingly, for Lions rugby history buffs, the closing provincial club fixture in Port Elizabeth was only finalised in January 2009 when SARU were able to confirm that they had received permission from the South African government to hold the match on the Youth Day national holiday on 16th of June. This was game would mark the debut of the Southern Kings at international level, a rugby franchise created in the Southern and Eastern Cape, as a result of the Southern Spears going out of business.

Head coach McGeechan’s original plan had been to gather the Lions squad together then relocate them to Granada in Andalusia, a Spanish city in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains to conduct a high-altitude training camp. However, best-laid plans, the camp was eventually cancelled in late April due to problems with player availability. 

The British & Irish Lions touched down in South Africa on 25th May. The agreed series format was to be similar to that of the Lions' 2005 tour of New Zealand. Like 2005, six games would be played before the first Test, and a mid-week game between the first and second Tests; however breaking the mould there was no mid-week game between the second and third Tests.

Further quirks of history were to surround the 2009 tour. One example being The Power of Four anthem, composed specifically by Neil Myers for Lions outings, proved singularly unpopular and was dropped from pre-match ceremonies. 

Another twist to the plot was the strange omission of The Bulls from the fixture list. Arguably the strongest provincial side in the world at that time, they were denied the opportunity to play the Lions, despite having defeated the Waikato Chiefs by a record score of 61-17 in the Super 14 Final two months earlier. Moreover, they were the last South African provincial side to beat the Lions in 1997.

South AfricaTests breakdown 2009

First Test
South Africa took the first Test in Durban 26–21. A dominant display in the scrum gave the Springboks 19–7 lead at half-time and they made an ideal start to the second-half, putting considerable daylight between themselves and the Lions at 26–7 after 50 minutes. The Lions made several substitutions to boost their scrum. From there on in the visitors fought their way back into the game to make an electrifying comeback, scoring late tries through Tom Croft and Mike Phillips, not withstanding South Africa clung on. High drama pervaded the last nine minutes of the match, with two tries for the Lions disallowed by the TMO. The game was later described by pundits and fans alike as an "unbelievable Test match”.

Second Test
The second Test was kicked off at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria and yet narrower margin drama saw South Africa overcome a valiant British and Irish Lions side with the last kick of the game 28-25. A prodigious penalty by Morné Steyn, launched, from inside his own half. The Lions were leading 19–8 on the hour mark, but tries from Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie enabled South Africa to tie the score ahead of Steyn's series-winning kick. Commentators described the state of the Lions at the end as "devastation", and as one journalist wrote of them "looking more like a scene from [fictional American television hospital series] ER as opposed to a rugby team". Prop Adam Jones, was forced to leave the field with a dislocated shoulder as he was cleaned out of the ruck by Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger was yellow carded in the 1st minute for ‘contact with the face in the eye area’ on Luke Fitzgerald, a misdemeanour for which he could easily have been sent off
Third Test
The Lions proved they were a force to be reckoned with in the third Test on the 4th of July at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, beating the Springboks 28–9, in what The Times called "one of the best and most heroic performances in the history of the Lions". With the series in the bag, the Springbok squad rang 10 changes from the previous week, and the Lions too made significant replacements. The Lions were straight out of the blocks and on top from the start, Shane Williams scored two quick fire tries after 25 and 33 minutes. England lock Simon Shaw was sin-binned for hammering his knee into Springboks scrum-half Fourie du Preez who was forced to retire on 41 minutes and received a two-week ban as a result. Ugo Monye scored another try in the second-half, while Shane Williams kept the Lions side of the scoreboard ticking over nicely, kicking 3 penalties and two conversions. This became the Lions first Test victory in eight years, their previous win coming at Brisbane in 2001.

Welshman Jamie Roberts was voted 'Player of the Series' by the British and Irish media.

So how good did that sound as an overall spectacle? There is absolutely no doubt that the British & Irish Lions 2021 tour of South Africa will be epic. Make sure you get there in style! - Tickets and hotel packages will go on sale soon.