Donal Lenihan: Whoever said ‘time is a great healer’ never lost a Lions series

The plethora of re-runs of great games from the past — All-Ireland hurling and football finals, memorable matches in Test rugby, glorious nights on the European stage from the giants of English football — have proved the mainstay for all major broadcasters in the sporting famine of the past month.
Donal Lenihan: Whoever said ‘time is a great healer’ never lost a Lions series

Brian O’’Driscoll of the Lions is tackled high high by Australia’s Daniel Herbert during the second test match at the Colonial Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. As a manager Donal Lenihan ‘put his heart and soul into the 2001 tour for over a year’. The thought of watching a re-run of the tests back-to-back proved too painful for our columnist.	Picture: Dave Rogers/Allsport
Brian O’’Driscoll of the Lions is tackled high high by Australia’s Daniel Herbert during the second test match at the Colonial Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. As a manager Donal Lenihan ‘put his heart and soul into the 2001 tour for over a year’. The thought of watching a re-run of the tests back-to-back proved too painful for our columnist. Picture: Dave Rogers/Allsport

The plethora of re-runs of great games from the past — All-Ireland hurling and football finals, memorable matches in Test rugby, glorious nights on the European stage from the giants of English football — have proved the mainstay for all major broadcasters in the sporting famine of the past month.

While most sports fans have grasped those meagre crumbs of old action with relish — excluding perhaps a hoard of Manchester United fanatics having to endure an entire Saturday afternoon of Liverpool European Cup successes played back-to-back on Virgin Media — spare a thought for the players and management of the vanquished and defeated.

They say that time is a great healer. You must be joking. You’d struggle to find a hurler or footballer anywhere who would welcome the prospect of sitting in front of the television for 70 minutes pouring over an All-Ireland final that they lost. Once you’ve experienced the bitter pill of defeat, in a moment that can never be recaptured, no replay of events will conspire to ease the pain.

In most cases, the opposite is the case.

It started with a few text messages. “All three tests from 2001 Lions tour to Australia are being screened, back-to-back, on Sky Sports”.

As manager, I put my heart and soul into that tour for over a year.

That series came down to the last play of the third test in front of a packed attendance of 84,188, a record for a Lions test, at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium a year after our own Sonia O’Sullivan finally captured her much deserved Olympic silver medal.

I dared to dream that it might prove a lucky venue for Corkonians.

I have never watched the deciding third test, a defeat that tipped the series 2-1 in favour of the reigning World Cup holders.

Nineteen years on, perhaps it was time to rectify that? The least I could do was record the games which I did (if a little reluctantly).

A WEEK later I made a further concession and watched the first quarter of the opening Test on a famous day at the Gabba when the modern-day fascination with following the Lions took hold in earnest. Thousands of British and Irish fans descended on Brisbane, bedecked in red, singing their way into rugby folklore. Even then, with the Lions leading 0-8 after only 15 minutes, I stopped watching the footage.

The Lions played some really outstanding rugby that day — they led 3-29 at one stage — before the Wallabies rescued some confidence for the second test by scoring two late tries at the death. Despite that concession, we were ecstatic.

We had won five of our six tour games in the lead up to the first test but at a heavy cost with Test contenders Dan Luger and Mike Catt already out injured before losing three more key players in Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back and Will Greenwood in a bruising encounter against the NSW Waratahs on the Saturday before the first Test.

Winning the opening test is crucial for the tourists as it keeps the series alive until the last game.

The second test in Melbourne ultimately proved the turning point. Not only were Australia stunned by the quality of our performance in Brisbane, the ARU went into lockdown and looked at ways to ramp up the support for the Wallabies. They were the home side after all.

The sheer passion, colour and singing which the visiting supporters brought to the mix at the Gabba stunned the hosts. Australians love their sport and are spoiled for choice with a long history of professional options at their disposal be it Australian rules, cricket, rugby league and soccer before the union game turned professional in 1995.

The Aussies thrive on success and the fact the Wallabies won the 1999 Rugby World Cup gave the sport a huge lift. In addition, the provincial sides were more competitive than ever against their New Zealand and South African counterparts in Super 12 rugby - the Brumbies won it that season, beating the Natal Sharks 36-6 in the final.

All that helped in attracting an even wider audience for the union game. By and large, however, their supporters were there to have a few beers and be entertained. In contrast, the massive Lions following were hugely invested in their team and were there to support.

The marketing department of the ARU went into conclave and spent the early part of the week prior to the second test devising a plan to dilute the impact of the Lions supporters. The first thing they did was get a Rock Licence for the Telstra Dome in an attempt to drown out the Lions singing during the warm-up and breaks in play. They failed miserably on that front. With the roof closed, the atmosphere was amazing.

The ARU spent Aus$80,000 on Wallaby hats, scarves and yellow tee shirts which they handed out for free to the home supporters while at the same time confiscating big red cards that British Airways were handing out to the Lions fans.

Everything was choreographed to favour the home side. When the Wallabies emerged from their dressing room, a camera followed them through a long narrow hallway that led to the tunnel, beaming the pictures live on the massive screens with the public address whipping up the hysteria as John Eales led his charges onto the field.

When Martin Johnson led his men on the same journey two minutes earlier, the stadium screens were loaded with advertising.

In truth, the efforts of the ARU made little or no difference as, in my recollection, we totally dominated the opening half. Crucially that dominance wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard A half time lead of 6-11 did scant justice to the quality of rugby we played.

Motivated purely by the desire to produce something interesting for the loyal readers of this column, it was only when I finally succumbed to watch the second test that I was reminded just how dominant we were.

A spectacular line break by Daffyd James after only four minutes could so easily have yielded an early try. Two more thunderous line breaks from barnstorming No 8 Scott Quinnell were also quashed due to a lack of composure on our part. A brilliant chip and chase from Brian O’Driscoll finally resulted in a well-deserved try for the Lions off a subsequent line out maul.

Another spectacular break by the outstanding Keith Wood looked certain to lead to a second try. With Martin Johnson offering support, the captain offloaded to fellow English man Richard Hill who was shaping to be the player of the tour at that stage.

Juggling the pass, he copped a cheap shot from Wallaby centre Nathan Gray, an elbow straight to the head. Hill was not alone taken out of the game but out of the tour. If it happened in today’s game, the TMO would recommend a straight red. In truth, referee Jonathan Kaplin wouldn’t need a second opinion.

Once replayed on the big screen, which it wasn’t back then, Kaplin would have no option but to issue a red card. With 45 minutes to go, it would have been game over, series over. Yet we were still in a very strong position at the break.

The last thing we said to the players before leaving the dressing room at half time was to play territory for the opening 10-15 minutes to ride out the inevitable Wallaby storm. Johnny Wilkinson, who was 21-years-old but outstanding on the tour, threw a pass that was never on. He should have kicked. A mere 20 seconds into the second half Wallaby winger Joe Roff, who was at the peak of his powers at that stage, sniffed an intercept and touched down from 45 metres out.

Four minutes later, we lost concentration in a scrum, an area we had dominated to that point. Off an unlikely scrum turnover, Roff scored again. Fifteen points in eight minutes showed why Australia were world champions. After that, we lost our half-backs, Wilkinson and Rob Howley to injury. I turned the television off.

You need a bit of luck to survive a Lions series. The 2017 Lions in New Zealand were granted their lifeline when Sonny Bill Williams was sent off 25 minutes into the second Test. Having lost the opening test, the Lions were very much on the back foot up to the point of that red card for a dangerous high tackle. It enabled the Lions to win in Wellington and keep the series alive for the highly charged drawn third Test back in Auckland.

Looking back for the first time on the re-run of our second Test in Melbourne, if we were guilty of anything it was of playing too much rugby. We should have kicked a bit more, especially after half time. What surprised me most was the ferocity of the breakdown with genuine rucking and clearing out with the boot permissible. It made for much quicker ball from an attacking perspective.

Both sides also committed more players to the breakdown than is now the case, leading to more space for the respective attacks. It led to far more line breaks and counterattacking opportunities than you would see in any game today, with the absence of the all too common, impenetrable defensive line spread across the field.

As a consequence it was a far more exciting and open game than you get to see in modern rugby.

It set me thinking about the laws of the game as they are applied now, an issue I will return to again having watched this.

In truth, we should have consigned the series to history in that second test but with the injuries mounting and a critical momentum shift heading the Wallabies’ way, it was destined to go down to the wire in Sydney. Australians are phenomenally competitive sportspeople and never give up.

As for the final test, this lockdown will have to last a fair bit longer before I contemplate the thought of watching that.

We lost 29-23. That’s not going to change.

More in this section

IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

LOTTO RESULTS

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

  • 8
  • 19
  • 21
  • 22
  • 34
  • 47
  • 15

Full Lotto draw results »