Peter Bills: Lions must find a way to recover

Click to follow
The Independent Online

How to avoid the mother of all hidings will increasingly occupy the British & Irish Lions thinking this week.

With the three-match Test series now over, the Springboks holding a 2-0 lead, the Lions have a huge, final task confronting them. How can they raise morale and rejuvenate tired, physically bashed bodies to a stage where they will again be competitive?

Whichever way you look at it, it's going to be a tough ask. That was the tragedy of Pretoria last weekend. Had the Lions sneaked a win or even a draw, which they should have had given it was 25-25 with less than 40 seconds remaining, the series would still be open.

But now, you could hardly blame the Lions for thinking of home and rest after such a long, arduous season. The bad news is, history is not on the side of a touring team in the final Test.

As that Lions legend Willie John McBride has said "The final Test is always difficult. You are tired, players are thinking about home and lifting yourself yet again is not easy."

Not even McBride's all conquering 1974 Lions could do it. They had won the Test series 3-0 when they came to the final Test in Johannesburg. Furthermore, they had the huge incentive of knowing that one more win would give them a 100% winning record on their 22-match tour. Yet still they couldn't lift themselves sufficiently, drawing 13-13, although a late disallowed ‘try' by Fergus Slattery could have won the game.

The 1955 Lions are still remembered in South Africa as one of the greatest sides ever to visit this country. They played some brilliant running rugby and went into the final Test in Port Elizabeth 2-1 up in the series. Yet they too ran out of gas, losing 22-8 that day which meant the series was drawn.

The 1962 and 1968 series here were dominated by the South Africans. Each time, they won the 4-match Test series 3-0.

But the trend of Lions teams struggling in the final Test was again shown in 1997 when the Lions, having won the 2-match series, lost the last Test in Johannesburg 35-16.

Only in 1980, when Bill Beaumont's Lions went into the final Test having lost the first three Tests, did the Lions win the final Test, in Pretoria, 17-13. Apart from 1938, that was the only time in the whole 20th century that a Lions touring team won the final Test match of a series in South Africa.

Similarly, in their entire history of tours to New Zealand dating back to 1904, the Lions have only ever won the final Test once, in 1959 under Ronnie Dawson's captaincy. They still lost the series 3-1.

The Springboks have been stung by the criticism of themselves and their coach in the build-up to this Saturday's Test match. It's fair to say they will probably be anxious to stuff the words of their critics back down their throats. Which means there is probably very little chance of the South Africans easing off and not having their usual intensity.

With the Tri-Nations series starting in just 19 days time, that seems highly unlikely. Players chosen for this weekend's Springbok side will know they could be playing for Test places against New Zealand and Australia. For them, bigger, tougher challenges lie ahead in the next couple of months.

Thus, the 2009 Lions, beaten and battered and sure to be without some of their best players, will go into the last Test with a weakened team and very much exposed. In 1983 when the Lions toured New Zealand, the last Test was a hammering, 38-6 to the All Blacks. Twelve years ago, it was pretty conclusive as the Springboks won 35-16.

It is going to take something exceptional by the Lions, a remarkable display of collective pride, desire and dedication to stay close to the powerful South Africans this weekend. But the one thing the Lions can't control is the Springboks' mindset.

If the South Africans still feel there is unfinished business, especially in the light of so much criticism, they may seek the kind of all embracing game that their coach always promised they could deliver. If that happens, if players go out knowing the series is already won and therefore with the freedom to play and express themselves throughout, it could be a long 80 minutes for the below strength Lions.

Yet you would hope the pride and courage this Lions squad has shown throughout the series will come to the fore. If that happens, it might not be so easy for the Springboks.