Jonny Wilkinson scored 18 points for the British and Irish Lions in the crucial third Test against Australia in Sydney yesterday but was still left in utter desolation as the tourists lost the series 2-1. The Newcastle stand-off, who had been taken off on a stretcher with a leg injury in the second Test last week, was exhausted and inconsolable. In Melbourne he had a pass intercepted by Joe Roff that led to a try that ignited the Australian's comeback. Here he scored a try, kicked two conversions and three penalties but missed three other penalty attempts as the Lions went down 29-23 in an incredibly tense decider at Stadium Australia.
The Lions, who had never previously lost a series in Australia, were fairly gracious in defeat, accepting that on balance the Wallabies deserved their golden moment. The management did not offer excuses and did not wish to detract from the Wallabies' performance, but there were several hints that changes would have to be made not only to the structure of future tours but to the amount of rugby played in the northern hemisphere.
Graham Henry, the coach, referred on more than one occasion to the fact that his players were competing at the end of an 11-month season. "That is something the administrators will have to look at,'' Henry said.
The International Rugby Board are well aware of the danger of player "burn-out'' but are less sure of how to solve the problem. Most new initiatives centre around creating more matches, not fewer. With only 90 contracted players and three teams in the southern hemisphere's Super-12 competition, the Australians, by comparison, are relatively fresh. The Australian Rugby Union have now got the go-ahead for a fourth side in what will become the Super 14, but the stench of overkill is inescapable.
The Wallabies, who have turned rugby union into a money-spinner here against all the odds and opposition from other sports, want to see the Lions touring every two years instead of four. No chance.
Meanwhile the International Board are pushing ahead with a fresh move – an annual northern hemisphere versus southern hemisphere blockbuster designed to raise money not for the haves but the have-nots. There are almost 100 members of the International Board, most of whom are desperately short of funds. The Australians, for one, are fighting against the concept of a north-south match.
Afterwards, the captain, Martin Johnson had no doubt that fatigue had been a factor. "This was the hardest tour I have ever been on and the Lions have got to learn from it if they want to win in four years' time. The guys have probably got to be kept a little bit fresher, physically and mentally. If 20,000 people are going come halfway round the world to watch us, we owe it to them to be in the best shape we can be.
"It's not an excuse for what happened, because we had a chance to win it today, but you can't expect people to come here after 11 months of rugby and face these sort of guys."
There is no question that the Lions were out on their feet yesterday, but it wasn't just tiredness that caught up with them. There were numerous injuries, a legacy from a long and gruelling season at home, and there was also another factor: the ill-judged, ill-timed newspaper comments from Matt Dawson (critical of the Lions management on the eve of the first Test) and Austin Healey, who had a rant against the Wallabies in general and new cap Justin Harrison in particular, on the eve of the decider.
Inevitably Healey's remarks were exploited by the Wallabies. "He called me a plod,'' said Harrison, who responded with an inspired display, "and there are not many syllables in that word, which suggests that his use of the English language isn't that clever. I can think about the game I played and he can think about the game he should have played. I will come off the moon soon, mate. This is what dreams are made of.''
Johnson admitted: "The team were held together with sticky tape and we came up short. Our discipline was bad in the first half. At 23-23 they just played better than us and the line-out cost us dearly. They also stopped our mauling game.''
Johnson referred to the role played by the brilliant Wallaby flanker George Smith, who celebrated his 21st birthday yesterday. "He was very effective,'' Johnson said. "When we come to the southern hemisphere they are always a step ahead in playing the ball on the floor. We need to adapt to the way the game is refereed here.''
Unlike some of his team- mates, Johnson did not have a shot at the Lions management. "It's the players' fault. We didn't get it done."
Henry said: "We came here to win and to go down 2-1 is very disappointing. Australia played very well under pressure and I would give a big pat on the back to the Wallabies. Having said that I thought we played with huge character and spirit. In hindsight I wouldn't have changed anything. We had a few hurdles to jump and then there were the injuries. We hadn't trained as a XV all week. We tried to do something different, but it didn't come together as well as we hoped.''
Donal Lenihan, the manager, said that in terms of players writing newspaper columns "there were problems that needed to be resolved''. He added: "The whole structure of the season needs to be looked at. Playing midweek and Saturday games on tour has become a major issue and is becoming very difficult. We will compile a report. We need to take stock.''
Rod Macqueen enjoyed his swansong as the most successful Wallabies coach in history. " It was a very special effort from the players. I have a lot of respect for the Lions, they are the best team we've played against. We showed composure under extreme conditions and I'm bowing out a very happy man.''
John Eales, the Australian captain, who lifted the World Cup in Cardiff two years ago, said: "I'm very relieved. There was a lot of pressure on us after the first game. The Lions pushed us to the limit in what was a very special series. It's been a real battle from start to finish. There was never a moment when there was a confirmed winner until the death. There were a lot of relieved gold jerseys out there.''