The Lions' 2009: Reflections, Conclusions, and Player Ratings

Matthew MaloneyCorrespondent IJuly 4, 2009

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 04:  Lions captain Paul O' Connell is congratulated by coach Ian McGeechan after the Third Test match between South Africa and The British and Irish Lions at Ellis Park Stadium on July 4, 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

"They don't give the trophy to the winners for nothing, you know"

So said Lions captain Paul O'Connell post-match after a deserved but belated third test victory which finalised an overall 2-1 series defeat; now etched in the history books for all time.

The Sky interviewer had previously pointed out that the Lions had indeed managed to beat the World Champions on the try count 7-5 and on aggregate points total over the series.

But you don't get prizes for that.

And neither to you get prizes for playing the prettier rugby sadly.

As Shaun Edwards pointed out in a column for the Guardian after the first test, scrum-half Mike Philips had seen more of the ball than the entire South African backline combined and it is no stretch to claim the Lions secured the lions share of possession in not just one but all three tests.

It was indeed a bittersweet ending of the 2009 tour for the Lions. Pride restored but the cold hard reality of losing will be hovering over the team during the long flight home.

Not that it was for lack of effort.

The initial selection of the coaching staff, a returning Ian McGeechan after an humiliating 2005 Lions tour, along with his fellow Wasp Shaun Edwards and Wales' Warren Gatland was perhaps telling of the approach the Lions would take to the series.

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Gone were the days of separate Lions teams, single rooming and a bloated number of coaching staff. Returning were the values and traditions of the Lions from tours past.

The initial squad selection was strong with perhaps even the 'world-class' fly-half, Ronan O'Gara meriting a place based on Johnny Wilkinson's and Danny Cipriani's acute lack of form/fitness. In the former's case over a period of years.

I guess we'll never know how Irish Grand Slammers Quinlan, Flannery, O'Leary, and a Wales favourite of mine Tom Shanklin would have done. Quinlan's gouging was merited and inexcusable-let's be clear about that. If you think Shalk Burger merited punishment for his horrendous actions then Quinlan deserved to sit out the tour, and he did.

Of all the initial withdrawls, I think Flannery was most missed. He would have easily started ahead of Mears, Rees, and Ford, and the amount of crooked throwing from the Lions various hookers at the lineout, an elementary error to put it plainly, was disappointing.

And so the tour started with a underwhelming performance against the Royal XV followed by a complete roasting of the Golden Lions.

The Free State Cheetahs were put down at the last minute by a Hook penalty while victory against the Sharks and another close call against Western province led up to the brutal physical encounter with the Southern Kings, who clearly were only too eager to soften up the Lions before test No. 1.

By the end of the pre-series games we had found out, apparently, three things:

-O' Driscoll and Roberts were undisputed starters along with O'Connell and our best chance of toppling the seemingly unbeatable Sprinboks.

-The Lions would suffer at the breakdown unless they sorted themselves out.

-We were 'safe' at scrum-time.

Only the first proved correct and British and Irish media and pundits alike got it horribly wrong on the scrum. As we were to find out with the first test.

Of all the tests the first is probably the one South African players will be showing to their grandchildren in years to come. For the first 60 minutes, the Boks were dominant in every nearly every facet of the game: maul, lineout, territory and most infamously, scrum.

They were the World Champions we'd come to know in their element, turning Lions into cubs in their wake.

The Beast had a standout performance come scrum-time. His direct opponent Phil Vickery could not cope and with Botha behind him and Aluyn Wyn Jones behind Vickery it was simply no contest in that area. It was the needless penalties conceded in this area that was to eventual be the difference between the two sides at the end of the game.

Overall, first impressions were clear for me. South Africa were more than willing to stick to a two dimensional set-piece orientated 10-man game and the Lions would have no other option but to use their superior backline and creativity seeing as kicking for touch and contesting the lineouts with Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha around was a no-no.

Not just that but the sheer physicality and conditioning of the Boks was worrying to me as a Lions supporter.

These guys clearly weren't going to be pushed around. They may not be great passers and they may struggle against quick ball and good movement coming off the ruck but it brought home the point more than ever that if you want to succeed in a contact sport -you had better get good at contact!

This point was brought home, painfully in the second test as many walked off injured. As The Lions tour doctor, Dr. James Robson, a veteran of 5 tours put it quite plainly:

"I can only measure it anecdotally and subjectively from my view but I would have to say this has been the most physical tour, the most physical Test matches I have been involved in.”

But the second test was role reversal. Adam Jones drove the Beast upward at the scrum, turnovers were found aplenty for the Lions and Rob Kearney's catching and counter-attacking negated Steyn, Du Preez and Pienaars kicking. As a result the dominant pack was unable to exert dominance in the areas that it mattered. Shaw seen to the mauls.

With the Lions roaring two things happened that changed the face of the game and the series: Numerous injuries to key personnel like Jones and Jenkins (leading to uncontested scrums) and the likes of Bowe, O'Driscoll, Roberts.

And Ronan bleeding O'Gara who was culpably responsible for a 10-point swing and with that, the end of the series.

I'm not going to bleat on about O'Gara here but him at centre was just never going to work in a million years.

Full credit most go to Steyn, Pienaar himself had a bit of a shocker and Steyn's all round game and kicking was imperious coming off the bench and with his 45m penalty, the Lions lost in the end by three points; A tale of so close and yet so far away.

The third test was in a word: redemption. O'Gara was exiled totally from the 22 and the Lions gave a performance that fully merited a win. Shane Williams, Ugo Monye, Riki Flutey and Jamie Heaslip threw aside the various cobwebs of criticisms that had been made against them over the tour and put in world-class performances to the man.

Final thoughts

Ultimately my interest in rugby has peaked with the series. All the games were crackers. The second test is probably the best game I have ever seen and I really feel a lot more affinity with the Lions now, despite the series loss.

They've proven to be a wonderful tradition over their 100-year history and they still are in my opinion. They're unique to rugby as a sport and thus, for me make it special.

People that say the Lions belong to a bygone amateur era have been made to eat their words in my opinion. Both teams took the games seriously, coverage and general interest was strong and most importantly the Lions we're competitive; not the ragtag scrabbled together team some would have you believe.

Overall I'm proud of the Lions.

[Please read on for my Lions player ratings.] 

Note: Obviously I'm not going to rate 40-odd players, so only the major appearance makers on the tour will be highlighted. Ratings out of 10.

Lee Mears-4.5: Went AWOL in the first test, disappointing throwing. Didn't help at the scrum. Rightly dropped.

Matthew Rees-6: Nothing to write home about. Like the rest of the hookers probably lucky Flannery was forced to withdraw to get test appearances under the belt.          

Gethin Jenkins-6: Decent performances. Overshadowed by the Boks pack as most packs are. Fractured his cheekbone in second test.                                          

Paul O' Connell (c)-7.5: Hard to rate. Lineout was always going to be tough. Solid at the breakdown, decent ball carrying. Biggest gripe is that you never felt his performance/presence was crucial to a victory like his counterpart John Smit for the opposition.

Adam Jones-8: His introduction almost single-handedly ended the Boks scrum dominance. His withdrawal due to injury during the second test led to uncontested scrums. Habana's admittedly individually amazing try was the result. He was really important to the Lions in this regard. Written off years ago, now loks a world class prop and scrummager.                  

Simon Shaw-9: Made his first ever Lions test appearance despite this being his third tour! Showed what a true Lion he was and what the shirt meant to him. Great countermauling, huge hands, great breakdown work at the ruck. Should of been first choice from the outset too as his scrummaging, like Jones helped the team immensely. 

Brian O'Driscoll-8.5: Helped create tries for Croft first test and later Kearney in the second test before being forced off. Would have been a dream season for the Ireland captain had the Lions won. Unplayable at times. Not afraid to get stuck in (ask Matfield) and passing was just delicious at times.

Jamie Roberts-9: Has become a world class centre now. Excellent work with the above, they almost seemed like brothers at times. He always guaranteed more than a few yards with his running/carrying. Kept the Boks on their toes constantly.            

Andrew Sheridan-7.5: Kept his discipline, scrummaged well and was willing to carry. Bonus points for his 'hey, you talkin to me?' look. Hilarious stuff.                     

Phil Vickery-6: Had a good pre-series tour to be fair and didn't look like he would be the disaster at the scrum he eventually was. Alot of questions raised for the England captain on this tour. Good mental strength to come back from being dropped.      

Aluyn Wyn Jones-4: Found out. Couldn't compete with the bok pack. Lost the ball numerous times when carrying. Anonymous for most of the proceedings. Looked terrified at times.                                                                                        

Tom Croft-8: Worked hard for a few turnovers. Scored two tries on his Lons debut. Can't ask for more. Many were surprised he wasn't in the original party. I can see why. 

David Wallace-6: I was a bit disappointed with Wallace. He played very well in the pre-test tour matches but went mostly AWOL during the tests. Failed to help out at the rucks.

Jamie Heaslip-7: Another personal disappointment. For me a world class No. 8 but he took so long to show it. He's a fantastic carrier and passer as shown for Williams's first try today. Amazing balance for a big man. Didn't do anything particularly wrong either though.

Shane Williams-7.5: Wasn't even going to rate the IRB world player 2008 until his performance today. This was the real Shane Williams. Two tries, good carrying and great passing. Found form too late you might say.                                              

Mike Philips-9.5: My personal Lions MVP. Great scrum-half. Willing to carry, line break and help out at the rucks. Scored a try. Also played at centre and acquitted himself well there too. Good tackling. Bettered Du Preez, which is saying something. World Class but needs to perfect his kicking maybe.                                                     

Stephen Jones-9: I really liked Jones performances. Very dependable kicking. Memorable kick to tie second test 25-25. Good tackling, passing and running. Only blemish was slicing some of his easier looking kicks to touch.                       

Tommy Bowe-7: Disappointed overall. Had an outstanding pre-series. Scored numerous tries and then did hardly anything in the test matches. Played at centre and was decent. Didn't proove that he's the world class wing we know of in the 6 nations. Just not to be on this tour.                    

Ugo Monye-7.5: Really messed up two great finishing opportunities in the first test. His kicking is ok, tackling reasonable and carrying ok. Nice intercept try but you feel he needs others to create space for him as he himself runs 'too straight' for a winger if you get me.                    

Rob Kearney-9.5: Outstanding. Probably the sweetest catcher of the ball out there. Great balance and agility to evade directly after catches, too. Powerful boot always handy against a strong pack. I really think Kearney could be the best in the world in his position in years to come.                                                                            

Luke Fitzgerald-6: Playing Bowe at center ahead of him was a massive vote of no confidence in the Leinster man. In truth did nothing to warrant a place in the 2nd test team against the Emerging Boks or in the pre-series. Just not quite up to speed but still one for the future you feel.                           

Ronan O'Gara-2: Dependable kicking but otherwise a disgrace to the Lions shirt. Still can't believe he warranted a test-22 place. His performances against the Emerging Boks and Southern Kings were woeful. Can't tackle, can't carry, can hardly pass, slow, gives away possession. Might aswell have been playing for the Boks. Just brutal.

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