July 5, 2009
Posted on 07/05/2009
As with the end of any tour, be it mini rugby or the international stage, this one ended with players and coaches embracing and offering thanks in one final, emotionally charged act of what has been a rollercoaster of a tour. Those fans lucky enough to share their flight did their best to catch one more memento on their cameras and mobile phones and the Lions were just as obliging as ever.
And so the curtain falls on the 2009 British & Irish Lions' tour to South Africa - a truly memorable experience. I've been lucky enough to travel the world writing about this sport for the last ten years but this was my first Lions tour. Tour veteran Brian O'Driscoll recently remarked that playing for the Lions is "like a drug" in the fact that you can't get enough and I have to say that having witnessed this latest tour at close quarters I can understand his sentiments.
There remains something special about the Lions and I wouldn't mind betting that those who question their place in the modern game have not had the pleasure of following their fortunes at first hand. The spirit of the Lions is infectious and now wonder head coach Ian McGeechan urged the doubters to embrace the Lions just once.
"I just wish more of those people who don't want to make time for the Lions would come out and actually experience a Lions tour," said McGeechan.
But it is not as if the Lions as a brand are dying. Estimates have varied but it is safe to say at least 30,000 fans made the trip to South Africa and with that kind of commercial clout the Lions will be back bigger and even better in four years time. Let us not underestimate the role played by the Lions' fans in keeping the brand alive. The Lions' shirt is often cited as the greatest prize for British and Irish players and it is that same famous red jersey that appeals to the fans. They admire the players that go into battle wearing it but they come and go through the years - it is the shirt itself, and what it stands for - the history, the tradition - that has the masses hooked.
The 2005 tour of New Zealand was a failure in many ways and although this year's quest also ended in a series defeat the latest batch of Lions managed to repair much of the damage done to their reputation on their last outing. For that, huge credit must go to McGeechan and his tour manager Gerald Davies. They promised to return the Lions to their traditional roots and they did just that - and in doing so made new friends and repaired strained relationships.
I hope you have enjoyed the insight I have been able to offer and that you too have been bitten by the Lions bug. The Lions are back and I for one can't wait for Australia in 2013.
Lions Tour 2009 Awards:
Player of the Tour: Brian O'Driscoll
Moment of the Tour: Ronan O'Gara's second Test cameo
Rising Star: Heinrich Brussow
Try of the Tour: Shane Williams, Lions v South Africa
Tackle of the Tour: Jean de Villiers, South Africa v Lions
Quote of the Tour: "I don't think it should have been a card at all."
July 4, 2009
Posted on 07/04/2009
OK - this was a second string South Africa side but it contained many of the form players from this year's Super 14 with a point to ahead of the Tri-Nations. This game was also being played at Ellis Park where only one side has claimed victory against the Boks in the last 12 years - a record they are rightly proud of. And the brawl that broke out in the closing stages of the game may well have been a sign of the home side's frustration at that record being tarnished.
What we saw today was the result of some McGeechan magic. The Lions veteran has once again shown his exemplary man-management skills to get this whole squad pulling together towards the same goal. They failed in their quest for a series victory but they dug deep and despite the many changes the hunger was still there. McGeechan indicated that this may well be his last Lions tour (including this year he has played on two tours and coached on five others) but don't be surprised if his name is amongst those linked with the 2013 tour to Australia.
But let us not forget that the Springboks already had the series in the bag thanks to their victories in the first two Tests. In those two games they showed just as much, and perhaps more character than the Lions showed today. Sport is a results business and the hosts produced the goods when it mattered most and should be heartily congratulated for that achievement.
South Africa chose to use today's game to protest at Bakkies Botha's two-week suspension for a dangerous charge in the second Test in Pretoria. They were incensed at what they see as the inconsistency of the judicial system that sees similar incidents go unpunished most weeks. They are right, and have received support on the matter from the Lions, but an occasion as today's match was not the place to air their grievances.
The match gave way to another contest of sorts involving the opposing fans. The aim was to make your way from one end of the pitch to the other to score an imaginary try. The problem was that fans were not allowed on the pitch and an army of stewards were there to stop them. But I'm glad to report that some did manage to escape the clutches of their would-be tacklers who at times looked as half-hearted as the Golden Lions did a few weeks ago. The score appeared to be in the Lions' favour until the stewards got their collective game-heads on but they had to rely on some reckless challenge that may have caught the citing commissioner's eye.
For the final game of the tour I had the honour of sitting next to the Daily Mail's Peter Jackson who was presiding over his last Test match before retirement. The Lions' impressive victory was a fitting tribute to his career that has spanned five decades - many of them at the frontline of the sport - and his contribution to the sport was acknowledged by head coach Ian McGeechan after the game. Enjoy retirement Peter - and thanks for keeping us both informed and entertained.
July 3, 2009
Posted on 07/03/2009
Lions prop Phil Vickery is an incredibly popular player. One look into today's press conference at the soul-less Sandton Convention Centre here in Johannesburg would have told you that. The journalists flock to his side whenever he is offered up to the media machine mainly because they know he is good value.
The 33-year-old, a veteran of 77 caps for England and four - soon to be five - Test appearances for the Lions, has seen most things in the game and has experienced both triumph and disaster. And in the words of Kipling he has managed to, "treat those two imposters just the same." Vickery, who led the Lions in their tour clash against Western Province, is honest, rarely ducks the issue and often raises a laugh or two. He knows the power of a good sound bite but is also experienced enough to know not to go too far.
This weekend sees him lock horns with South Africa's Tendai 'The Beast' Mtawarira once again after coming out very much second best in the first Test clash in Durban. When asked how he had coped with the disappointment of their encounter we got one of the quotes of the tour.
"You know you've had a **** game when you get text messages from your mum, your sister and your Mrs saying that they still love you," said Vickery.
He also offered an amusing behind-the-scenes insight into the battle that was last weekend's second Test at Loftus Versfeld and the humour within the exclusive front row club.
As 23rd man for the match, Vickery found himself in the treatment room doing his best to help fellow props Adam Jones (dislocated shoulder - thanks to a dangerous charge from Boks lock Bakkies Botha) and Gethin Jenkins (clash of heads with Boks winger Bryan Habana). Fearing he was neglecting Jenkins in favour of Jones, he crossed to speak to the Welshman whose "face was caved in" and was covered in blood and stitches. Struggling to speak, Jenkins joked, "Is Nugget [Martyn Williams] playing tight-head?"
Vickery was also confident of a stronger showing against The Beast this weekend where he hopes to exorcise some demones and settle some scores. The weight of hooker Matthew Rees alongside him and lock Simon Shaw behind him should be a huge help this time around.
Lions assistant coach Warren Gatland was also up in front of the media today and revealed that he and head coach Ian McGeechan had engaged in a positive meeting with their South African counterparts - Peter de Villiers and Gary Gold - and Saturday's referee, Stuart Dickinson, the previous night. Interestingly, Gatland had sympathy for the Springboks on the issue of Bakkies Botha's two-week suspension for his dangerous charge on Adam Jones that ended his tour. Gatland and co did not see anything wrong with that specific incident. His actions may well have been questionable but apparently no different to what is usually allowed according to the Kiwi.
Some mixed feedback regarding Naas Botha's comments on Ronan O'Gara that we ran with earlier this week. Whether you agree with him or not, the former Springboks fly-half is a charismatic figure who is not short of an opinion or two. I was lucky enough to spend some time with him after an invite from my Total Rugby colleague Martin Cross. At his home on the outskirts of Pretoria he entertained us with many stories including how he would regularly play for Northern Transvaal on a Saturday afternoon before jumping on a plane to Italy where he would turn out for Rovigo the following day - he would sometimes be forced to get changed in the taxi from the airport but more often than not would play a starring role in both games.
So here we are on the eve of the final game of the tour. Many predicted that we would reach this point with the Springboks already victorious but not one of those expected it to be so close. A total of eight points have separated the team in the last fortnight. Can the Lions rescue something from the series at Ellis Park? I hope so because they deserve something. The Springboks have been the better side but not by much and even they would find it hard to begrudge the visitors a consolation win. Time will tell how focused or generous the hosts are feeling.
July 2, 2009
Posted on 07/02/2009
He admitted he had been 'stupid' over the past few days - not for sharing his outspoken views but for reacting to some of the perceived negative reports from the British & Irish media.
"What a stupid bugger I am," he told reporters. "I've learnt that if they can't win on the field then they will try to win anywhere else they can."
De Villiers is also refusing to change his ways and did nothing to dispel the belief that he is obsessed with his own persona by referring to himself in the third person. "I won't change my style," he said. "If I change my style I change Peter de Villiers and I go back to God and say: 'You made a bad job.'"
Fascinating, amusing and sometimes troubling - but nearly always good copy. He is very much an individual which is a notable character trait but sometimes you think he is a loose cannon. The pressure of being the first black Springboks coach and to a certain extent a political appointment must weigh heavy at times.
He is blessed with an immensely talented team and his record of 11 wins in 15 internationals since taking over from Rugby World Cup winner Jake White is also impressive. But you sense that De Villiers feels he is untouchable and not even a atrocious on-field record could hasten his demise. SA Rugby chiefs are obliged to give their man time for fear of further political repercussions. His controversial comments must cause concern but at the end of the day sport is a results business and as long as his side keeps winning - and they are many people's favourites for the Tri-Nations - he will continue to have the support of his union, his team and most importantly the fans.
In a related point, SA Rugby issued a statement today clarifying the judicial ruling on Schalk Burger's eight-week ban. They were keen to stress that the flanker was cleared of eye-gouging Lions winger Luke Fitzgerald in the opening minute of the second Test but found guilty of 'making contact with the eye area' of the Irishman. The statement also included an apology from Burger to his team and their fans but not to the Lions or Fitzgerald.
De Villiers has predictably made several changes to his side for Saturday's final clash in Johannesburg with the series already in the bag. It is obvious his mind is now focused on the forthcoming Tri-Nations and his selection - and his desire to give all his players the chance to play against the Lions - does de-value the fixture to a certain extent. Perhaps they should have been allowed to play for their provinces then, apart from the Bulls' players, there would not be such an issue. However, it remains a formidable line-up - such is their strength in depth.
The Lions, ravaged by injury, will limp into the Ellis Park clash with a new-look team. Of note is Phil Vickery's return to the front row for the first time since his mauling at the hands of South Africa's Tendai 'The Beast' Mtawarira in the first Test. As a result of McGeechan's final tour selection winger Tommy Bowe (at centre for Saturday's clash), fly-half Stephen Jones, No.8 Jamie Heaslip, scrum-half Mike Phillips and captain Paul O'Connell will be the only players to have started all three Tests. How the Lions must wish that number was higher.
June 30, 2009
Posted on 06/30/2009
That incident continues to take the shine off their achievement - South Africa showed great character and mental strength in both of the opening two Tests to see off a brave Lions team and exact revenge for their series defeat 12 years ago. But instead of glowing in that success they find themselves fighting fires due to their outspoken coach Peter de Villiers.
De Villiers sparked the controversy by insisting that the Burger incident did not warrant a yellow card and that such incidents were a part of sport - “It's sport, man. This is what it's all about,” he said. SA Rugby have since issued a statement apologising for any suggestion that, "acts of foul play are in any way condoned by South African rugby." But the same day that apology was issued, De Villiers was again defending the actions of his player and denying the incident took place.
It seems no one has the power to silence De Villiers or at least get him to tone down his opinions. There is an argument that he is bringing the game into disrepute and the suggestion that eye-gouging is part of the game is simply horrifying. That one statement could do irreparable damage to a sport that is trying to boost participation levels at grassroots level and also make a bid for Olympic re-inclusion.
Lions centre Brian O'Driscoll made a very telling point - "Kids or parents watching an interview like that, questioning whether they should have their kid play rugby or soccer, that's their decision made right there."
SA Rugby are going to be under increasing pressure from the International Rugby Board is they are unable to silence their coach.
I was sent some interesting facts on the back of Burger's latest indiscretion courtesy of my Scrum.com colleague Huw Richards.
Saturday's yellow card was Burger's first on the international stage for four years and 32 matches. He also holds the record for the most yellow cards in international rugby with his latest being his sixth - coming in his 50th match. His latest yellow card saw him edge past Italy's Marco Bortolami on that particular unwanted rugby record.
He collected his previous yellow card against Ireland on June 12, 2004, then on consecutive weekends against Wales and Ireland that November, against France on June 25, 2005 and Australia on July 23, 2005 - in other words in the space of 15 matches and little over a year.
The Lions' communications team (and their South African counterparts) have been incredibly helpful throughout the tour but their attempt to keep the media machine well fed during two days of media inactivity had us giggling.
The release in question offered the following hold-the-front-page sound bites:
"On Monday we went on an early game drive, jumped in the truck, grabbed a blanket and were driven round. We saw all sorts of animals, the hippos in the water, elephants, warthogs, zebras, a hell of lot of impala and deer and the backside of the elusive Lion!" - Tom Croft
"The safari was amazing, to actually see the elephants and the Lions up close and then right at the end to actually get in the cage with the Lion was one of the best moments of the tour." - Ugo Monye
"The safari was brilliant fun." - Ross Ford
Thankfully the void was filled by Brian O'Driscoll who decided to give De Villiers both barrels for his controversial comments.
June 28, 2009
Posted on 06/28/2009
The Lions’ fans were again magnificent. The estimated 25,000 in the stadium more than held their own – and a special mention for the Zulu War uniform-clad group who greeted the Springboks off the team bus with a stirring version of Men of Harlech. Psychological warfare - great stuff.
The game itself was such a brutal encounter one journalist asked whether the modern game was too physical – an interesting question for the Lions to consider as they pick through the remains of their squad ahead of the final clash in Johannesburg.
There were some crunching tackles – none more so than that of Lions centre Brian O’Driscoll on Springboks replacement Danie Rossouw. The two staggered away like punch-drunk heavyweights with the towering Rossouw coming over all Bambi-like before hitting the deck. The warrior that O’Driscoll is, he refused to acknowledge the pain or the fact that he had been concussed and tried to carry on – but it was not long before he had to make way.
The Burger alleged gouging incident did not make for pretty viewing. It occurred under the noses of the media ranks and was greeted with widespread shock by journalists on both sides of the divide – partly because the Stormers flanker is not a dirty player. He walks a fine line like all good back row forwards but this was out of character. The citing commissioner has called him to explain his actions and it is likely he will be handed a heavy ban.
As I have said elsewhere on the site, it was a shame for such a thrilling game had to include such an unsavoury incident. With the first capacity crowd of the tour and a worldwide audience of millions it was perhaps even more of a shame to see the scrums reduced to uncontested with the game not even an hour old. When such a pivotal part of the game is reduced to a farce it must send alarm bells ringing at the International Rugby Board. Law changes allowing for extra front row replacements cannot be too quick in coming.
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers all but denied the alleged eye-gouging incident took place in his post-match press conference with his attitude drawing gasps and even laughter from some quarters. And he appeared to be getting himself into a corner before his skipper John Smit intervened and asked everyone to move on and leave it to the citing commissioner. Smit could perhaps see his coach hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons again.
The Lions management face a huge task to lift their players now as they bid to avoid the whitewash. It is all very well saying that the famous red jersey will be all the inspiration they will need but I fear it will need something extra.
June 26, 2009
Posted on 06/26/2009
That bizarre experience was the prelude to a fantastic day touring the sprawling township on the outskirts of Johannesburg - an experience I highly recommend. Our trip took in the Hector Pieterson and Apartheid Museums, the soon-to-be-completed Soccer City stadium being built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup and into the heart Orlando East - one of township's suburbs. It was an intense history lesson and you'll be able to read more about my visit soon.
The previous evening I was lucky enough to catch some of Confederations Cup semi-final clash between Brazil and South Africa at Ellis Park. I've never known an atmosphere like it and Bafana Bafana did their passionate supporters proud with a brave display. Daniel Alves' late strike broke the hearts of the majority of the 50,000 crowd but did not silence the vuvuzela horns. This Saturday's second Test between the Lions and the Springboks at a capacity Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria should provide an interesting contrast and I'll be sure to let you know all about it.
Following my social study at Ellis Park I can now offer the following guidelines for supporting Bafana Bafana:
Vuvuzela - You either love them or hate them but if you are serious about supporting Bafana Bafana you have to have one of these plastic horns.
Makarapa - Pimped-up hard hats. A homage to the country's mining roots and the more elaborate they are the better.
Over-sized sunglasses - The bigger the better and preferably yellow.
South African flag - Another must-have. Can also be painted onto your person.
Ability to dance - Not only when you score but on the spot continuously for a full two hours.
Bafana Bafana shirt - Worn back-to-front to show your player allegiance to the TV cameras.
Mobile phone - To ensure you waste time getting a blurry and muffled souvenir from the game rather than just soaking up the atmosphere.
Nelson Mandela mask - Bring your own bit of 'Madiba magic' to boost your team.
June 25, 2009
Posted on 06/25/2009
The sun will also be welcomed by the Lions when they eventually return to the Highveld but with that joy will be tempered by the prospect of playing the most important game of their lives at 1400m above sea-level.
Put simply, playing at altitude makes breathing harder as the thin air means there is less oxygen available.
The issue has troubled most touring teams in South Africa and the Lions are no different. Lions fly-half Ronan O'Gara memorably summed up the debilitating effects of playing at altitude following the opening clash with the Royal XV in Rustenburg.
"I felt like an imbecile in that first match," he said. "I certainly underestimated the effects of altitude. The mind was telling me one thing but the body wouldn't get me into the position to do it."
As with every other aspect of this tour, the Lions management and medical teams have put months of preparation into this part of the tour. And reports suggest that England football coach Fabio Capello has already sought their advice ahead of next year's Fifa World Cup.
The Lions' preparations were to include a training camp in Spain where conditions would be similar to those they would face here in South Africa but that was subsequently scrapped. Instead the players were encouraged to use altitude simulators - adding a sci-fi element to their pre-tour build-up at their leafy Surrey base.
"The Lions will discover the difference when their chests start burning," warned Springboks skipper John Smit earlier this week but perhaps he as unaware that the Lions have continued their altitude training whilst at sea-level thanks to the high-tech equipment available to the fitness team. One such training method requires players to wear a mask connected to a machine that limits oxygen intake.
The Lions have played their last five games at sea-level in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban and have chosen to prepare for the must-win second Test in Cape Town before flying up to Johannesburg on Friday - the day before the game.
Experts say that ideally you need eight days preparation at altitude to combat the effects but the Lions' schedule did not allow for that. The alternative is to travel up at the last possible moment - as the Lions are doing. The science behind this approach says that the somewhat crippling effects do not then have a chance to kick in.
Only time will tell if the Lions have got their preparation just right. But of course, the altitude issue is just one factor - albeit a major one.
The teams for the Pretoria showdown have both been announced with South Africa opting for only one change. Schalk Burger returns to the Springboks' line-up for the unlucky Heinrich Brussow who drops to the bench. However the Lions, who must win the game to keep their feint hopes of a series victory alive, have opted for a little more surgery with five changes including a first Test cap for veteran lock Simon Shaw.
South Africa have only lost three of their last ten clashes at Loftus Versfeld - all to New Zealand - and England were the last northern hemisphere side to upset the odds back in 1994.
The odds are really against the Lions and the first sell-out of the tour suggests that the home fans are confident of seeing their side complete the job.
June 24, 2009
Posted on 06/24/2009
The rain, cold temperatures and gale-force winds has me longing for the sun and the balmy temperatures of Durban - and the blanket coverage of a sun-drenched SW19 on the various sports channels available here is not helping matters.
Denied the chance to return to Robben Island or climb Table Mountain due to the inconsiderate weather, I accepted an invite to South Africa College Schools (SACS) to catch some junior action ahead of the Newlands clash. SACS, the oldest school in South Africa, was playing host to Kings Hospital School from Dublin and both sides did their best in what were atrocious conditions. A 5-5 draw was a fair result by all accounts but I must admit I was driven under cover long before the final whistle.
It was heartening to see another bumper crowd at Newlands, bolstered by the thousands of Lions fans who remain committed to the tour. They braved the elements with the kind of enthusiasm we have come to expect from the Lions' loyal following. I guess when you have paid several thousand pounds for the chance to be here you are not going to let the small matter of the end of he world spoil your fun.
But the Lions' fans were unable to inspire great things from their team. Despite the demoralising draw at the hands of the second string Boks, the Lions did their best to remain positive after the game but a citing for lock Nathan Hines will not have helped the mood in the camp.
Luckily, I am escaping the gloom here in Cape Town ahead of the Lions who are due to remain here until Friday. The bad news for them is that the weather shows no signs of breaking up before the weekend which is sure to hamper their preparations for the second Test.
Meanwhile, the Springboks are basking under the sun in Jo'burg where conditions will not be a million miles away from those at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria - that will stage the pivotal Test clash on Saturday.
June 22, 2009
Posted on 06/22/2009
His medical updates, peppered with his favourite phrase 'in good fettle', are quite a draw due to the entertaining insight they offer into the foibles of the players - e.g. Lee Byrne likes his troublesome foot strapped a certain way - and his assessment of players under his care - "I'd like to stick a needle in his backside sometimes...He's a complex individual who is a bit like Austin Healey, is phenomenally talented and sometimes a bit irritating but I love him to bits." - The player in question? Byrne again.
When pressed on his admiration of Healey, Robson continued, "I think Austin was one of the most talented players I have ever worked with" - Cue sigh and rolling of the eyes from Healey's ex-Leicester and England team mate Rowntree and much laughter.
His latest epic briefing included the longest answer we have seen on tour. One of my colleagues from the BBC asked for some clarification on the rulings on concussions, as that recently suffered by James Hook. A full FOUR AND A HALF MINUTES of detailed explanation later he was only stopped by a round of applause!
"And if you want a more detailed answer see me after," he joked.
Robson's contribution was more than a fitting introduction to Rowntree's honest remarks about the Lions' showing against the Springboks the day before. He acknowledged that they had been second best and the players, in particular the forwards, would be 'very disappointed' when they reviewed the tapes themselves.
Before I left Durban I squeezed in a visit to Paul Flanagan in nearby Port Shepstone. The well-travelled former hooker, who had a spell at Ballymena, now runs a rugby academy. It was an all-too-brief trip but I got a great insight into some great work he is doing - stay tuned for more details.
While tour fatigue maybe setting in for some, it obviously isn't for others. I over-heard this conversation on my flight from Durban.
Lions Fan #1: "Do you find you're having to pace yourself drinking-wise?"
Reports in Monday's papers backed up the assumption that the Lions' travelling support have a mighty thirst.
Under the headline, "Lions fans drink pubs dry" Barbara Cole of the Cape Argus wrote:
"Emergency beer supplies had to be trucked in to pubs in Durban and Umhlanga to cope with the demand from Lions fans.
The report continued: "It was absolutely unbelievable. We were just not prepared for the onslaught," said a delighted Eleanor Gilles, manager of The George Tapas and Wine Bar. "The Lions drank us dry twice on Friday and I had to close the doors at midnight as we had run out after getting a re-supply at lunchtime."
Good old Brits abroad.
Another story I stumbled upon over the weekend centred on the subject of empty seats. There was a bumper crowd in at Kings Park for the opening Test but there were still plenty of unsold tickets.
It appears that such was SA Rugby's concern about the possible embarrassment that would accompany swathes of empty seats at the game that they were out amongst the local clubs on Friday night handing out free tickets. One source told me that at their game - all the matches were switched to Friday to enable fans to watch the Test - someone was handing out tickets by the handful.
The potential public relations disaster obviously triggered some desperate moves from officials but they are not the only ones under pressure. Fifa continues to press South African officials over the empty seats at Confederations Cup matches while the crime issue is looming as an even bigger problem with Brazil the latest to suffer at the hands of thieves.
I was greeted by rain on my return to Cape Town and the morning gave way to a grey, damp and miserable picture from my hotel. The forecast is for more of the same which my hinder any plans for an expansive game from either side on Tuesday night.