Ten performances that shook the world: Rugby Union - Johnson's Lions in ascendancy `on their arses'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Rugby has entered its age of Enlightenment, an era in which clipboard-wielding coaches are paid spectacular amounts of money to develop fitter, faster players and foolproof tactical blueprints under scientific conditions. Statistics are the measure of all things; bleep tests, tackle counts, aerobic fitness levels and kicking charts have replaced the chicken vindaloo, the sly left hook and half a dozen verses of "Get 'Em Down, You Zulu Warrior" as the currency of the professional game.

Happily for those of us who flatly refuse to apply the Critique of Pure Reason to 80 minutes worth of rough and tumble on a Saturday afternoon, the union code remains reassuringly adept at consigning the best-laid plans to the garbage can and knocking the cleverest of Clever Dick theories into the middle of next week. On 28 June, in the forbidding surroundings of an emotion-charged King's Park in Durban, Martin Johnson and his Lions flew in the face of presumption, hypothesis and plain common sense to beat the Springboks 18-15 and thus become only the second British Isles party this century to win a series on South African soil.

Ian McGeechan, the Lions' coach, called it "15-man rugby without the ball"; Rob Andrew, the former England outside-half who had tasted both success and failure as a Lion, politely pronounced that the tourists had won the game "on their arses"; and John Bentley, who played on the right wing that day, admitted as recently as last month: "I've gone through the tape many times and every time I watch it, I think the Boks are bound to score." When Jeremy Guscott, purveyor of the famous match-winning drop goal deep into the final five minutes, let rip in the dressing-room during the interval and demanded that the Lions "play some rugby for once", his colleagues stared blankly at him as though to say: "Jerry, we'll consider it if and when we get to touch the ball."

Quite simply, the Lions produced one of the great rearguard actions in rugby history. Having tackled their way to glory in the Cape Town Test seven days previously, they suspected the Boks would come looking for them with fists clenched, eyes glazed and teeth bared. When the tourists reached King's Park, they knew they were on the menu; the passionate rugby folk of Natal had transformed the stadium into a huge concrete snarl and when several hundred dancing Zulu warriors burst on to the greensward, it seemed less like pre-match entertainment than the shape of things to come.

Sure enough, the Springboks ran in tries through Joost van der Westhuizen, Percy Montgomery and Andre Joubert (the first an almost inevitable result of a prolonged siege of the Lions' line, the second and third the consequences of rare defensive errors by Alan Tait and Bentley respectively). Yet neither Montgomery nor an out-of-sorts Henry Honiball could maximise the advantage by kicking a single goal and that glaring frailty allowed Neil Jenkins, the human radar, to keep the tourists in touch with five penalties, thus paving the way for Guscott's coup de grace.

Many rugby revisionists, startled by the pace and panache of the All Black and Springbok squads who toured here during the autumn, now consider the Lions to have been false prophets, a courageous but distinctly fortunate side who stuck rigidly to a pragmatic but profoundly limited game plan and capitalised mercilessly on self-inflicted Springbok wounds. Such a view misses the whole point, of course. When you play sport at the top level - and levels do not come any more elevated than a Lions Test series - you climb the mountain by whatever route happens to be available. When Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing conquered Everest, they did it with the aid of oxygen. Did that make their achievement any the less worthy of celebration?