You could write the definitive book on life and rugby based on the opening Tests of a British & Irish Lions series alone. It would cover every emotion from unthinkable glory to ashen-faced regret but one consistent thread would bind the narrative. The Lions team that contrives to lose the first Test will probably have at least four years in which to lament what might have been.
Just once since 1900 has a Lions side won a series having lost the opening rubber. That was back in 1989 in Australia when Finlay Calder’s team came back from the metaphorical dead with a little unscheduled help from David Campese and Greg Martin. In South Africa there continues to be no precedent of any description. If at first the Lions don’t succeed, that’s basically it.
A look at the old scoreboard in the professional era alone is instructive. In 1997 the Lions rode their luck to win the first Test 25-16 and famously went on to win the second as well, courtesy of Jeremy Guscott’s drop-goal in Durban. In 2001, with Jason Robinson and Brian O’Driscoll scoring tries for the ages, they won the opening Test at the Gabba only to lose the series 2-1.
What about 2005? Who can forget the bitter ice storm which swept into Christchurch, the early exit of the injured Lions skipper O’Driscoll or the swift collapse of the touring side’s best laid plans? Then there was 2009 when South Africa’s scrummagers did a number on their opponents and, despite their most valiant efforts, there was no way back.
It was a less chastening story from the tourists’ perspective in 2013, with Warren Gatland’s first tour as head coach producing a 2-1 series victory based on a desperately tight 23-21 first-Test victory in Brisbane. Close as they came in 2017, winning the second Test against the All Blacks and drawing the last in circumstances that stretched credulity, the old truism held firm following an initial 30-15 defeat in Auckland. The first cut, yet again, was the deepest.
When your mum, your wife and your sister text you to say they still love you, you know things haven’t gone too well
Why is this so? By definition it takes time for a Lions party to gel. These days there is even less time in which to work the precious alchemy that turns four nations into one. And their opponents know it. The Springboks, in particular, are even more dangerous with a bit of momentum. The Boks do occasionally lose at home but for it to happen on successive weekends represents a shocking loss of face. Aside from a pre-World Cup aberration at home to Argentina in 2015 it is necessary to rewind back to 2008 to locate the most recent example.
Even then, having lost to New Zealand and Australia at Cape Town and Durban respectively, the Boks bounced back strongly to hammer Australia 53-8 at Ellis Park the following week. The difference this time is that all three Tests of this Lions series are now expected to take place at sea level because of Covid-19 infection rates in Gauteng. Taking altitude out of the equation by remaining in Cape Town is not going to leave the Lions broken-hearted.
In the end, though, it is less the comforting sight of a nearby ocean that shapes the Lions’ fate as thinking clearly under pressure and understanding how to defuse their opponents’ tactical threats. In his autobiography Phil Vickery admitted the Lions had not been particularly concerned about Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira prior to the first Test at Durban in 2009. Only once the game started did alarm bells start to clang as Vickery, a World Cup winner six years earlier, found himself being illegally fired though the roof of the scrum. By the time he was replaced five minutes into the second half, the damage was done. As Vickery put it after being recalled for the final Test: “When your mum, your wife and your sister text you to say they still love you, you know things haven’t gone too well.”
How desperately thin the line can be between triumph and disaster. Even in 1997 the Lions were under intense pressure in the opening three scrums of the series and owed a huge amount to Matt Dawson’s overhead dummy that completely fooled everybody. In 2009, though, they were less fortunate, losing 26-21 despite outscoring their hosts by three tries to two. “We found ourselves in the place where the Lions never want to be in a three Test series,” wrote Gatland subsequently. “One down, with the prospect of being dead seven days later.”
It was to prove too tight a corner, Morne Steyn’s last-gasp long-range penalty settling one of the great modern Tests which ended 28-25 in the Boks’ favour. The Lions romped away with the final Test 28-9 but, as Gatland subsequently put it, the sweetness of that victory could never be completely satisfying. And now here we are, 12 years later, about to witness the latest compelling opening chapter. Pounce early, Gatland will be telling his players, or prepare to be massively disappointed.