The tour that threatened the Lions’ existence

We started our series of looking back at the British & Irish Lions tours of New Zealand with the class of 1904. Now it is time to leap forward to 2005 where Sir Clive Woodward tried to take the Lions into the professional age. It did not quite work out as planned…

The most recent British & Irish Lions trip to New Zealand is by definition the most vividly remembered, not least by those of us who were lucky enough to be there. Yet it was at the time a venture whose failure, with a comprehensive whitewashing in the tests, seemed to threaten the future of the Lions. A poll at the tour’s end as to whether they would be returning in 2017 might have returned a far from conclusive endorsement.

So much had seemed to be on the Lions’ side. The coach, Clive Woodward, was a former Lion and a reigning World Cup winner, less than two years on from his greatest triumph. He had even made himself available to concentrate full-time on the Lions by walking, with rather uncharacteristic petulance, out of the England job in 2004. Much of the team which had brought glory to England in November 2003 was still available.

The All Blacks celebrate their 2005 series win over the British & Irish Lions Getty Images

Woodward himself clearly grasped the reality of Lions tours, that where almost every other rugby team — even a World Cup squad — is a process with at least half an eye to the future, the Lions are an event, concerned entirely with the here and now. What might happen in South Africa in 2021 will be the least of considerations for anyone involved in this year’s tour of New Zealand. As Woodward said at several press conferences: “If we win the Test series, I’ll be a genius. If we lose, I’ll be an idiot.”

But the things which seemed most in the Lions’ favour worked against them. Like many successful coaches Woodward became to some extent the prisoner of his greatest achievement. Where England’s other World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey hung on to his tactics, Woodward was over-attached to his players. All Lions coaches tend in selection to favour they players they know and trust best, and few more than Woodward.

That much was evident as soon as the 44-strong squad was unveiled in alphabetical order at a hotel near Heathrow. First up were Neil Back and Iain Balshaw. Soon after came Matt Dawson and Will Greenwood. All fine players , who at their peak would have been shoo-ins. And while those peaks were in the past, a reasonable case could be made for any one of them. But all four ? It was a case of not so much the wrong players as the wrong year — 2005 had seen Wales winning the Grand Slam with a fluid handling style and England enduring a second consecutive year of middle-table ordinariness, but there was little in the Lions selection to reflect this.

With England Woodward has employed an army of specialist support staff. There were to be 29 in New Zealand. Among them the choice of Alastair Campbell, formerly press secretary to Prime Minister Tony Blair, as head of communications commanded more attention than the rest combined. It also showed that nobody in the Lions hierarchy seemed capable of distinguishing the intellectually restless Woodward’s many fine ideas from the odd crazy one, and vetoing the latter.

Getty Images

A pre-tour run-out against Argentina at Cardiff was enough to suggest that the tour might be a troubled one. A Lions team minus players still involved in domestic playoffs scrambled to a 25-25 draw after trailing by 13 points. Even the main plus, a majestic display from outside-half Jonny Wilkinson, was to rebound on the Lions – evidently convincing Woodward of the indispensability of his injury-afflicted playmaker, who would never look fully fit in New Zealand.

You could not say these Lions were lucky. Lawrence Dallaglio was injured after playing superbly for the first 20 minutes of the opening match against Bay of Plenty and not seen again. In all seven replacements had to be summoned. There was, to be fair, some logic to that apparently bloated tour party. If 30 made sense when teams consisted merely of 15 starters, why not 44 when they were made up of 15 plus seven replacements?

But with only six matches before the Test series, it was impossible to gain a clear sense of form, fitness and the most effective combinations. The team which started the first Test at Christchurch had not played together before. Damningly two-thirds of the starting back-row in the second and third tests, Ryan Jones and Simon Easterby, had not been among the original 44.

It might, just, have been possible to get away with this somewhere else. But this was New Zealand, where every opponent had an open side flanker who could have played Six Nations rugby, media interest was so intense that even hacks as obscure as myself were liable to be interviewed four or five times during the tour and the game permeates society so completely that entirely random encounters included Perry Freshwater’s brother serving breakfast in Rotorua and a referee with vivid memories of the young Martin Johnson running a café in Te Kuiti. The ‘fourth Test’ against New Zealand Maori, third match of the tour, lived fully up to its name as the native team won their first ever official victory over the Lions — their predecessors of 1904 had, as Gallaher and Stead record, beaten the Lions of that year in an unofficial match — by 19-13 in Hamilton.

Sir Clive Woodward presides over a 2005 Lions training session WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

The first Test was nightmarish, played at Lancaster Park in weather to underline suspicions that Captain Scott, whose ill-fated expedition departed from Christchurch, had left in search of better weather. Certainly the mock polar storm offered to visitors to the excellent Antarctic Base on the edge of the city seemed benign by comparison.

Within 77 seconds talismanic skipper Brian O’Driscoll was out of the tour, upended by a challenge from opposite number Tana Umaga and hooker Keven Mealamu. Debate over the intent and legitimacy of the tackle and the Lions’ reaction would rumble poisonously for the rest of the tour, with little objectivity on either side. The Lions were outplayed in every phase. Lock Ali Williams and wing Sitiveni Sivivatu scored tries for the All Blacks and the final margin was kept down to 21-3 only by the ghastly conditions.

A heavily reconstructed side led by new captain Gareth Thomas, a late arrival on tour after playing in the French playoffs, started well in the second test in Wellington with Thomas himself sweeping in for a second minute try he celebrated with a performance of Cardiff City’s ‘Ayatollah’ dance. That was as good as it ever got. This was the night on which Daniel Carter stamped himself as one of the defining figures of the age with a virtuoso display at outside-half, crossing twice as he scored 30 points in the All Blacks 48-18 win.

The final weekend, in Auckland, was anticlimactic and more remembered for the news from home – the award of the Olympics to London and the following day’s 7/7 terrorist attacks, which sent a stream of local TV crews and journalists down to the trotting track in the suburb of Epsom, converted temporarily into a campervan camp, to seek comment from tour followers.

(Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images)

The midweek team coached by Ian McGeechan, who would reply ‘Yes, if they’re sending coaches in wheelchairs’, when asked by journalists about his availability for the 2009 trip to South Africa, completed an unbeaten tour by seeing off Auckland 17-13. But Woodward’s Test team completed a whitewash of its own, going down 38-19 in a match whose chief memory is of the sardonic chorus of ‘Flower of Scotland’ from the Scottish press contingent when hooker Gordon Bulloch came on as a 70th minute replacement, the first Scot to take part in the series.

The All Blacks, coached by Woodward’s immediate Lions predecessor Graham Henry, were so good that it is likely they would have won even if the Lions had done everything right. And to have to merge the best players of four separate national squads into a unified whole, getting the best out of all of them is a huge challenge under any circumstances — never mind when the opposition is New Zealand.

Any such unity is wont to break down in adversity, with other countries – and in particular their media — blaming whichever is seen as most to blame. The England vs. Celts fault-line which emerged in 2005 is among the more predictable, but far from the only one. There is little doubt which country would have got the blame had Warren Gatland’s final Test selection on the tour of Australia in 2013 been unsuccessful.

The failure of 2005 led to some frankly unfair revisionist takes on England’s World Cup triumph in 2003, with suggestions that Woodward had simply got lucky with the players at his disposal, and any half-decent coach might have won it. This was patently unfair — a personal view remains that his influence was more decisive than that of any one player, brilliantly accomplished group though they were. But it was a sad and disappointing conclusion to a genuinely brilliant coaching career.

Combined with the miserable experience of 2001 in Australia, it might have jeopardised the Lions as an entity. One thing above all else saved it long enough for the 2009 team in South Africa, even though it lost the series, to restore credibility.

It certainly helps that players still want to play for the Lions, but what matters most of all is that fans want to come to see them play. And, for the southern unions which host them and cast ever-warier eyes on the riches of the game in France and England, that means money. And nothing talks louder than that in the modern game. So long as the Lions continue to pack the crowds in, bringing that hugely welcome once-in-12-years bonus to the coffers of the host unions, their future is secure.

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