by Conor O'Shea
If the third Test was a dead rubber then you have to wonder what rugby is becoming; the physicality was something else. You also have to say that the commitment from the Lions was a tribute to the coaching team’s ability to keep everyone in an ‘on tour’ mindset when it would be easier, at the end of a long season, to start planning your holiday.
As it happened, the Springboks were the team who looked as though they were not quite with it on the day.
Both teams made a huge number of changes and you would have thought that the loss of the Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts centre partnership would have been too much to take for the Lions. Instead, it was the absence from the South African side of their wings JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana that was the biggest problem. The Boks took their chances in the previous tests but just didn’t have the cutting edge and their back three were average to say the least.
This week, it was the hitherto off form Shane Williams who suddenly rediscovered his magic and finished with two great scores, the first courtesy of a fabulous Jamie Heaslip carry and off load.
Boks proved themselves in previous two Tests
But this win needs to be put in perspective. Immediately following the game people were asking ridiculous questions like ‘did the better side lose the series?’ Yes, the Lions were magnificent but the better side were South Africa and this was a dead rubber.
The greatest tribute to the Lions side was that they produced such an excellent performance and they have done the jersey proud. The great thing for Northern Hemisphere rugby was how the players will take this forward to their respective countries. With a selfish hat on, this series could really be the making of Ireland leading into the World Cup in 2011.
I say that because, to a man, the Irish contingent were outstanding. Rob Kearney continued on where he left off from the second test and he has now moved to world class level. Together with Tommy Bowe, who played well at outside centre, and Luke Fitzgerald, we are have a potentially lethal back three each of whow will have learnt a lot from the tour.
The fact that Keith Earls will be pressing them soon will only add to the mix. It is that type of competition that drives players to be better. The outside backs for Ireland are incredibly exciting and young. I already want the Autumn Internationals to get started!
In the centre for the Lions was the incomparable Brian O’Driscoll. He was missing on Saturday but he has left an indelible imprint on every team he has represented this year, and this tour was no different. Roger Federer became the greatest tennis player of all time on Sunday; BOD is, to most people anyway, the greatest Irish rugby player of all time and one of the greatest players of all time from any country. Let’s hope he stays fit for two years and is there in 2011.
His regular partner in crime over the years Gordon D’Arcy still has a few years in him and they will all have to nurse Ronan O’Gara back following the second test. But he has come back before and I am sure he’ll come again. O’Gara will know that the pressure is beginning to be applied for the 10 slot by Jonathan Sexton.
Ireland will gain a lot from this tour
There were other huge positives for Ireland on this tour: Paul O’Connell just grew and grew as a player and leader and Jamie Heaslip is developing into the consummate number eight and really took it to the Boks. It was great to see John Hayes get on to win a Lions test and as he strolled on his first act was to lift Paul O’Connell high into the Ellis Park sky to catch a kick off; how O’Connell will miss him when he retires.
You could keep on going. David Wallace didn’t start at the weekend but has played his part. They will all be too aware of the competition for places with Ireland with the likes of the recently emerged Stephen Ferris and others in behind him – players like Sean O’Brien - coming hot on their heels.
Declan Kidney will be licking his lips. I really believe this tour could do for Ireland what the 1997 Lions did for England. Six years after that tour in 2003 they won the Rugby World Cup. This Lions tour could provide yet another step in the upward profile of this Irish team. I believe Wales will benefit in equal measure.
Two other brief reflections from the weekend relate to two old warriors. Martyn Williams was simply incredible and the Lions management must be thinking to themselves if they were to play the game the way they did, should they have gone with him for all tests. True, he started the tour carrying an injury but he is the ultimate seven.
My final word goes to Phil Vickery, who showed that the criticism of him following the first test was ridiculous. Vickery gave the beast a bit of his own medicine in the final Test and I was glad to see that.
Overall this was a great series and one that really has underlined the importance of the Lions to players and supporters alike. They gave it their all and gave us some great memories even though, ultimately they finished second.