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I’m a firm believer in the saying that you learn more in defeat than in victory and that goes a long way to explaining why Warren Gatland has so often referred back to the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa this time around. Twelve years on and for us as players it still feels like a huge missed opportunity so it is no surprise that Gatland is making sure at every turn that lessons have been learned from that series defeat.
I cast my mind back to the buildup to the first Test in Durban and do believe that as a squad and as a starting XV we were in a good place, but Warren is absolutely right to say that we were not prepared for the step up in intensity. It was one thing executing set-plays and getting into our structures in warmup matches we were winning comfortably but doing so against the Springboks was another thing entirely. For that reason I firmly agree that the match against such a strong South Africa A side on this tour was one of the best things that could have happened.
In many ways, there are similarities between the side Ian McGeechan picked 12 years ago and that which Warren has selected this week. Both teams had a focus on keeping a high tempo, on moving the ball quickly – Tom Croft’s selection is an obvious example in the 2009 team – but if anything, it seems clear that the Lions are not going to die wondering on Saturday. We got off to an appalling start and I believe the importance of the Lions setting the agenda on Saturday – and doing so quickly – is reflected in the selection of form players such as Ali Price, Jack Conan and Luke Cowan-Dickie.
There is no better word to describe our start in 2009 than “appalling”. Shaun Edwards called it the worst first defensive set he’d ever seen in Test rugby and that pretty much summed it up. We got pumped in the scrum – a problem all match – and then John Smit was under the sticks three phases later. To onlookers it might have looked like panic set in, that in the first Test after the heavy defeat by New Zealand in 2005 the Lions were floundering again, but I can honestly say I had every belief we would still create enough opportunities to win the match.
In fact, we did – I was responsible for not taking two of them (even though the first one should have been a penalty try!) – but we just could not reel them in on the scoreboard. Mike Phillips dropped one over the line too and it really did feel like we just ran out of time. Having said that, I know full well that South Africa could not care less if they were beginning to flag in the closing stages. We’ll see it in the Olympics: if only the track was five metres longer, if only the game was five minutes longer. But you don’t question those things when you win, you just don’t care. In a series that is once every 12 years, if you ask any of the South Africans, they wouldn’t entertain the idea that they were hanging on. I couldn’t tell you any of the scorelines for those three matches, I do know that we lost the series 2-1.
Personally, I felt I had played pretty well but my job was to score tries and I didn’t. That’s on me, that’s not the team’s fault. You get put in space, you finish but I didn’t do it. But as a collective, we were just bitterly disappointed and frustrated. Rarely in professional sport do you get to have another crack at the same opposition seven days later and you could tell, in the second Test the intensity just went through the roof. That game has stood the test of time. Twelve years on I don’t know if I’ve seen a more physical game of rugby than that. I’ve been retired for six years and the game has moved on a lot since then so 12 years back in time, to have that level of intensity and physicality… I’ve not seen anything like it.
Again, that may go some way to explaining why Warren and his coaches have been so insistent that they can match South Africa’s physicality, stamp their authority early and make South Africa chase the match. I go back to England’s tour of South Africa in 2018 and in two of the three matches the Springboks were able to chase down scores.
I have to wonder if this current side can do that and then I look to the Lions’ bench and see Conor Murray and Owen Farrell and see two players perfectly primed to close out a match. As Gregor Townsend has said, it is a lot easier to restrict your gameplan during a match rather than open it up.
Test matches never go perfectly to plan, particularly Lions Tests, and I think I experienced every possible emotion just in that first match against South Africa in Durban. Dealing with those emotions is a key part of elite sport and whoever can do that best and whoever can impose their gameplan on their opponents will win the game. Sounds simple when I put it like that.