Lions tours can always be relied upon to deliver passion, controversy and drama and the tour to Australia did not disappoint. The four year cycle of tours feels about right and their rarity is one aspect that makes the Lions so special. For the majority of host players, they get one chance against the Lions and whether it’s at Test or provincial level, win or lose, it’s likely to be a career highlight. While for the tourists, be they players, management, media or supporters, a Lions tour is a life changing event. The history, camaraderie, common sense of purpose and thrill of the tour is something never to be forgotten. With the Tom Richards trophy now winging its way back to the Northern Hemisphere it’s a good time to take stock of the last eight weeks.
• A pulsating test series ending a three tour losing streak. With the victory came a much needed restoration of respect for the Lions. Most rugby people love the Lions but if they continually fail to secure a series win, at some point the appeal will diminish. The victory in Australia ensures a great build up to the New Zealand tour in 2017, with the Lions hoping to build on the recent success.
• The visit by a number of the Lions squad to the grave of Robert Seddon in Newcastle, NSW. Seddon captained the first Lions tour in 1888 and drowned in the Hunter River midway through the tour. His grave is maintained by the local Maitland Rugby Club and they deserve immense credit for the work they do and the respect they show to the player so tragically lost 125 years ago.
• Sam Warburton at 24 was the youngest Lions captain in 55 years but he led the squad with aplomb from start to finish. While devastated to miss the deciding test in Sydney, the grace with which he responded to this disappointment, marks the manner of the man. Warburton was in the form of his life in the second test before being injured. His leadership style is different to some of his predecessors but equally effective.
• The travelling Lions supporters never fail to make a positive impression when they tour. They bring colour, passion, fanaticism and good humour. This tour was no different but the manner in which the Australian supporters responded was magnificent. They matched the visitors by wearing gold, they sang the national anthem with great gusto, supported the Wallabies with pride and though disappointed, accepted the series defeat with good grace.
• The financial windfall the tour has generated will allow the ARU to stabilize its financial position. After two years of losses and the ongoing challenge from Aussie Rules and Rugby League, this respite is welcome. However rugby union’s struggle for relevance in the competitive Australian sporting landscape means the ARU have their work cut out in their attempts to make the game financially sustainable.
• With the exception of a yellow card awarded to Alun Wyn Jones for holding on to the ball on the ground in the game against the Western Force, the Lions emerged from the tour with a blemish free disciplinary record. It would also appear that off the field the Lions managed to avoid any controversies or bad publicity. How refreshing for a group of professional sportsmen to avoid the front page of the tabloid newspapers.
• The withdrawal of international players from the provincial sides the Lions faced was disappointing and is surely something which needs to be addressed for the future. Apart from the fact that some of the games were diminished as a result, it also deprived a number of Brumbies players, such as Ben Mowen and Stephen Moore, the opportunity to be part of the famous victory over the Lions.
• The James Horwill incident was handled appallingly. The stamping itself wasn’t pretty and the ruling by the judiciary was difficult to comprehend but the interference by the IRB meant the story ran longer then it should have. The underlying problem continues to be the inconsistencies of judiciaries but one wonders if the decision would have been different if a Lions player had been in the dock.
• The disrespect shown to both Robbie Deans and Warren Gatland at various stages was disgraceful. Deans’ unpopularity with Australian rugby people has been no secret for some time. However, the level of criticism leveled at him reached a crescendo during the Lions tour. Added to this was the behaviour of Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor in the lead up to the 2nd test. To be photographed out on the town in Melbourne at 3.50am was bad enough and then to miss the team bus to training before the final test was the final straw. If the Wallabies had greater strength in depth both players would have been dropped. Meanwhile the vitriol that was directed at Gatland after his selection of the Lions team for the 3rd test was shocking. Media, former Lions greats and the online trolls were to blame and most have been remarkably quiet after Gatland was vindicated in Sydney. Both coaches are decent men, doing the job to the best of their ability; they (and their families) did not deserve to be subjected to that level of acrimony.
• That George Smith was allowed to return to the field after his concussion in the final test. At a time when the IRB has made huge efforts to educate about and introduce protocols for concussion, little respect appears to be shown for player’s welfare. Smith may well have passed some psychometric tests pitch side, and he may have wanted to get back on the field but surely the medical staff should have insisted that he sit out the rest of the game.
• The emergence of Leigh Halfpenny on the international stage. He finished the tour with an overall goal-kicking record of 89% but that doesn’t tell the full story. Many of the kicks were from the sideline but he never looked like missing. In the third test Halfpenny showed his full range of skills from his flawless positional play, to great line breaks and perfectly timed passes. He was Man of the Series by a country mile and you would struggle to find a more modest and humble recipient of such an award. The lad from Gorseinon is now a Lions legend.
• The tries by Israel Folau and George North in the first test defied belief. While tackles were obviously missed, the pace and strength of both men was something to behold. At only 24 and 21 years old respectively, they are surely only going to go from strength to strength.
• The Brumbies and their coach Jake White who ambushed the Lions in the game in Canberra. The Lions fielded an inexperienced side and could be accused of disrespecting the Brumbies somewhat. More likely the decision was made to protect the leading players ahead of the series, the outcome of which would determine the success or otherwise of the tour. With huge work rate and great defence the Brumbies pulled off a famous win which was thoroughly deserved on the night.
• Most Lions tours throw up an unlikely hero and Alex Corbisiero undoubtedly wins that accolade. Having originally missed out on selection, the loose head prop was only called into the squad when Cian Healy returned home injured. His dominance of Ben Alexander in the final test was only half the story as his play around the field was outstanding, and with a try to his name, the night in Sydney will surely prove a milestone in his career.
• The final word goes to Alun Wyn Jones who was an inspired choice as captain for the final test and he responded to the responsibility with a colossal performance. He had an excellent tour and was a certainty for test selection, but will be remembered for his tackle count in Sydney and the ferocity of his overall performance, leading from the front all the way to the end.