Danny Grewcock: ‘It was a privilege to be a part of that first test in 2001’

The former England star recalls the last Lions tour of Australia and tells Hugh Godwin about his joy at getting off to a winning start – and the pain of losing the series

Danny Grewcock cannot place the precise moment during the 2001 Lions’ trip to Australia when he came into possession of a mini-rugby ball with the tour logo printed on it, but he kept it as a souvenir and as he watched his son kick it around the family home in Somerset yesterday, it created a nice and natural association with the current venture Down Under. “He’s only three but he loves his rugby,” Grewcock says of young Henry. “He knows the Lions is all going on in Australia at the moment and I think he knows that on some day in the  distant past, I wore the Lions jersey.”

Grewcock was four years into a decade-long international career of 69 caps for England – many of them shoulder to shoulder in the second row with the colossus of captaincy, Martin Johnson – when he went on the 2001 tour. The epitome of the strong, silent type, Grewcock would walk the line of the laws, and occasionally trip over it – in the notorious match with New South Wales in Sydney seven days  before the first Test in Brisbane, for instance, he was one of four players simultaneously sent to the sin-bin after a brawl, having been the recipient of an elbow to the face from the Waratahs’ Tom Bowman that gave a sure indication of the way the evening was heading. But one thing is clear from Grewcock’s recollections: it is better to have played a Lions Test series and lost than never to have played one at all.

Consider this, from the last few minutes of the third and deciding Test in Sydney. Naturally Grewcock has a view on the crucial Lions line-out stolen from Johnson by Justin Harrison to preserve Australia’s six-point lead – one of maybe half-a-dozen individual acts beginning with Jason Robinson’s carefully constructed, coruscatingly finished try early in the first Test that would be in any set of snapshots of the tour. But Grewcock’s first-hand  account is dominated less by the gold jersey and pilfering hands of Harrison – who would later become a club-mate of his at Bath – than by the magic of a then 22-year-old Irish centre. “I  remember that third Test,” says Grewcock, “when the time was ticking, and the Aussies were one score ahead, just seeing Brian O’Driscoll work and work and work. I’d chase him, just knowing that ‘Jesus, if there’s someone who can break the defence, it’s going to be him’. Seeing him give it his all was a credit to the whole team.”

Grewcock has another souvenir: a photograph showing him heading back down the players’ tunnel after the victorious first Test, with the hands of dozens of Lions’ supporters straining to pat him on the back. In common with today’s series opener, the setting was Brisbane, although in 2001 the stadium was the Gabba, a citadel of cricket. It was a wonderful match. Hard but fair, and a revelation of good combinations – Rob Henderson and O’Driscoll in the centres combined the unheralded and the gilded youth – and individual quality, from Robinson’s try, to O’Driscoll’s snipe to make a score for Dafydd James, to the Irishman’s own dash for glory in the second half. The Lions won, 29-13, against a team who at the time held the World Cup, Tri-Nations title and Bledisloe Cup, but who had played only one warm-up match against the New Zealand Maori with a shorter Super Rugby programme than this year’s behind them. The Lions’ head coach, Graham Henry – like Warren Gatland today, a New Zealander – described Australia as “underdone”. The hosts responded with wins in Melbourne and Sydney to add the Lions’ scalp to their heaving honours board.

“We’d got some good wins in the lead-up to the first Test but we also knew we were up against the best side in the world,” says Grewcock, who would play every minute of all three Tests. “What made it for me in Brisbane was the atmosphere when the Lions’ support came in. The town was taken over – and the players really felt that. We’d walked around the Gabba in the days before, and it was nothing like Twickenham or the Millennium Stadium. You realised the crowd would be a long way away, so would we have the atmosphere we all wanted? My thoughts were that we were going to have a very tough day. Then, come the Saturday, we came down in the hotel elevator and the reception was packed with Lions’ fans, cheering the lads on. I’d never seen anything like it. Taking the bus to the ground, the streets and the pubs were filled with them. I’d describe it as the best home game I’ve ever played in, for all the distance we were from home.”

On that morning, UK time, a newspaper column by the Lions’ bench scrum-half Matt Dawson slated Henry’s training regime and claimed some squad members had switched off. “I can’t even remember what Matt said,” is Grewcock’s response. “But Graham Henry did as much as he could to prepare the Test team and on these tours there’s a very small window to get it right. Some players were jaded after a long season, we had a lot of the England coaches involved – Andy Robinson, Dave Alred, Phil Larder – and Henry had been extreme and very tough in his planning. There was a structured game plan and it probably wasn’t until that first Test that it went how we wanted it to. There were some incredibly talented players out there too – O’Driscoll, Jason Robinson, Jonny Wilkinson. It was a privilege for me even to be part of it.”

The first-Test jerseys were presented by the eminent Lion and second row, Willie John McBride, who spoke the right words and not too many of them. Having surprised themselves, to an  extent, the Lions moved on to Melbourne, under a closed roof, with home supporters handed gold T-shirts and scarves to redress the red imbalance.

Grewcock’s Saracens and England colleague Richard Hill was smashed out of the tour by Nathan Grey’s hit on the head, but Grewcock identifies the turning point as the scrum which went “belly up from our side”, to hand Joe Roff a try in Australia’s 35-14 win before they took the third Test, in which the pilferer Harrison made his debut, 29-23. “The Aussies took the shock of the first game and came back at us hard,” says Grewcock. “But we all worked hard to the end. With a different toss of the coin it might have come our way. We were a talented group of players and coaches. It was a very good Australian team that held us out.”

2001: A Lions Odyssey

* First Test details

30 June 2001 Australia 13-29 Lions, The Gabba, Brisbane

Scorers: Australia: Tries Grey, Walker; Pen Walker. British & Irish Lions: Tries Robinson, James, O’Driscoll, Quinnell; Cons Wilkinson 3; Pen Wilkinson.

Line-ups:

Australia: C Latham; A Walker, D Herbert, N Grey, J Roff; S Larkham, G Gregan; N Stiles, J Paul, G Panoho, D Giffin, J Eales (capt), O Finegan, G Smith, T Kefu. Replacements M Burke for Latham, h-t; M Foley for Paul, 55; E Flatley for Larkham, 55; B Darwin for Panoho, 68; M Cockbain for Eales, 72; D Lyons for Finegan, 82.

British & Irish Lions: M Perry (Bath and England); D James (Bridgend and Wales), B O’Driscoll (Leinster and Ireland), R Henderson (Munster and Ireland), J Robinson (Sale and England); J Wilkinson (Newcastle and England), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); T Smith (Northampton and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), P Vickery (Gloucester and England), M Johnson (Leicester and England; capt), D Grewcock (Bath and England), M Corry (Leicester and England), R Hill (Saracens and England), S Quinnell (Llanelli and Wales). Replacements: I Balshaw (Bath and England) for Perry, h-t; C Charvis (Swansea and Wales) for Quinnell, 69; J Leonard (Harlequins and England) for Smith, 82.

* Full tour results

8 June W Australia, won 116-10

12 June Q’sld Pres XV, won 83-6

16 June Q’sld Reds, won 42-8

19 June Australia A, lost 28-25

23 June NSW Waratahs, won 41-24

26 June NSW Country, won 46-3

30 June Australia, won 29-13

3 July ACT Brumbies, won 30-28

7 July Australia, lost 35-14

14 July Australia, lost 29-23

* Leading Lions points-scorers

72 J Wilkinson 50 J Robinson

26 R O’Gara

21 M Dawson

20 A Healy, R Henderson, D Luger, B O’Driscoll, S Quinnell

* Leading Lions appearances

8 I Balshaw

7 M Corry, M Dawson, D James, J Leonard, J Robinson

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