The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the Lions’ tour

July 5, 2009

There was much to enjoy on the British and Irish Lions’ latest adventure, not least one of the all-time great test matches in Pretoria last week, but there were down sides too that need to be addressed for the next trip, to Australia in four years.

The Good

The Pretoria test. It was an absolute classic. It was played at a almost frightening physical intensity and had enough talking points to last four years, not least Morne Steyn’s nerveless last minute penalty to win it, and the series, for South Africa.

The fans. Lions tests are so special because no other rugby international is played in front of such a split audience. Home and away fans deserve credit for playing their part in creating a wonderful atmosphere at all three venues.

The locals. With the Confederations Cup also in town over the last month or so South Africans have shown that they are the friendliest of host nations. (Almost) everyone has a ready smile and couldn’t do enough to help. 

The TV official. It might sometimes take a long time but surely well worth it as a qualified international referee takes advantage of every available TV angle to decide on dubious tries. Painful though it is to be on the receiving end, in the cool light of day it is by far the best system and makes soccer look laughable with its refusal to embrace the same technology.

John Smit. The Springbok captain was already a hugely popular and impressive figure but somehow furthered that reputation with another commanding performance in terms of leadership and dignity.

Phil Vickery. The former England captain had the worst afternoon of his career in the first test but instead of moping about it he spent the following week doing all he could to help Adam Jones look good in his place. He got his reward when, due to injury  to Jones, he was recalled for the third test and won a penalty against “The Beast” at the first scrum.

Rob Kearney. Looked to have missed out on the fullback berth after Lee Byrne was chosen for the first test but injury opened the door early on and the Irishman was superb in just about everything he did as he grabbed his opportunity.

Fourie du Preez. Did not grab the headlines but the Springbok scrumhalf was at the same time a  supremely calming and extremely dangerous presence.

Simon Shaw. The only survivor of the 1997 tour, the mighty lock finally got his Lions test cap in Pretoria and with it delivered an immense performance.

Graham Rowntree. Just as the Lions were bracing themselves to complain about the refereeing or the illegal scrummaging of Tendai Mtawarira, the tourists’ scrum coach told a news conference that there was nothing illegal about it and that Vickery had just been “done”. Refreshing honesty in a world of modern sport where spin too often rules.

The Bad

The tour games. These were badly devalued by the Springboks’ decision not to release their test players and the fans were not fooled — leaving half-empty stadiums and easy victories.

The breakdown. Still it remains an area of confusion where players and fans alike have little idea of which side has committed a penalty until the referee raises his arm.

Ticket prices. Empty seats at a South Africa v Lions test match would seem unthinkable but at around 80 pounds a ticket it becomes understandable. South African officials’ excuse that they set the prices “before the recession”  cut little ice. Having said that, nobody lucky enough to have been at Loftus Versfeld would have begrudged a penny of their entry fee.

Peter de Villiers. Whether the Springboks triumphed because or despite their coach remains a subject for long discussion but his ill-thought comments about the Schalk Burger incident will haunt him.
The Ugly

Schalk Burger. What a way to mark your 50th cap — by sticking your fingers in the eyes of a downed opponent 30 seconds into the match. And, having got away with a eight-week ban for the offence, he apologised to his team mates and fans for being sin-binned but declined to say sorry to Luke Fitzgerald, the Lion he could have blinded with what the IRB described as a “heinous act”.

PHOTO: John Smit, captain of South Africa, lifts the trophy after his team won the test series against the British and Irish Lions July 4, 2009. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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