John Robbie.
JOHANNESBURG – Do yourself a favour. Employ Google and search for the 1980 British and Irish Lions “wonder try”.

It happened in Olën Park in Potch against a very strong SA Invitational side and was scored by Mike Sleman, the England winger. It was during the fourth game of the tour, the first three having been victories for the Lions.

However, despite the good start, the Lions had not set SA on fire. The traditional tough opener against EP was followed by a fairly easy win against a SARA XV in East London.

Natal were tricky and the 21-15 win was a bit close for the tourists. Remember their predecessors were the all-conquering 1974 side of McBride and Millar, so uncomplimentary comparisons were being made at this stage.

With 10 minutes to go in Potch, the Lions were losing and then the magic started. Thirty-two pairs of hands touched the ball in a wave of attacks that lasted over a minute-and-a-half from a single set-piece. There were multiple offloads and changes of direction. There was individual brilliance and great support play. In the end, Sleman scored and most players, on both sides, were on their knees.

It was hailed as a greater team try than the famous Gareth Edwards Barbarians effort against the All Blacks in 1973 and it was wonderful. It still is, even by modern standards.

However, it has largely been forgotten. Why? Because, instead of using that moment of brilliance to inspire expansive improvement on the tour, the Lions brains trust, largely dominated by forwards, went back into their shells.

A target was set to win all the provincial games and this was achieved. So what? It is a footnote of rugby history.


The Test series was lost 3-1, largely because the Lions chose not to cut loose behind the scrum. They neglected to make mistakes early in the tour in order to become a much better side. They did not have a real, sharp, attacking arrow in their quiver, despite having the raw material to fashion one.

Today the British and Irish Lions start their 2017 tour of New Zealand. It is a different world, but lessons remain from the past.

The Lions have a murderous itinerary after the first game, including jousts with all the Super franchises and a tilt at the Maori All Blacks. Then the Test series takes place at the end of the tour. What are those lessons from the past? Nineteen-eighty says it all.

The Lions will find the pace of New Zealand rugby different to anything they experience in the northern hemisphere. Their fitness levels, mental and physical, will be tested beyond belief.

There will be a massive temptation to play it tight, kick for position and try and win with goal-kicks resulting from forward pressure. This must be avoided at all costs early in the tour because it will waste valuable opportunity.

Unlike 1980, the Lions must not fixate on results in the provincial games. These must be used as practice matches for the Tests.

The Lions must try and speed up their play to match the New Zealand standards. Risks must be taken and the players must be encouraged to step out of their comfort zones.

Experiments must be made and, if necessary, games sacrificed for the common good. What is that? Winning the Test series, of course.

Regardless of how many games the Lions win or lose, they will be judged primarily on the Tests. After that, of course, things like panache and style and sportsmanship come into it but, make no mistake, winning the Tests is the challenge.

The All Blacks are hot favourites at this stage and, if early Lions games are lost, local hubris will increase and multiply. Exponentially!

The Kiwi public will feel their heroes will just have to turn up to win that first Test.

The Lions will be written off and even mocked, as in 1966, 1983 and last time around in 2005. However, just imagine if the Lions can win that first Test. Imagine, if it transpires, how the pressure will shift to the home side. The All Blacks will, suddenly, be up against it.

The Lions have great goal kickers and we know how important they can be in a tight series.

The Lions will compete up front but at some stage, even if just once or twice, they will need a bit of brilliance behind the scrum to win, even if they are conservative in the Tests.

Will Warren Gatland learn from the past mistakes by the Lions? Photo: Reuters

That happened in 1971 with the greatest side of all. The Tests were tight, but Gerald Davies and Barry John were put away for the critical tries that won the series. Winning the first Test is the key to it all.

Of course things like team spirit and fairness in selection and the potentially volatile chemistry between four groups of players who normally compete against each other, will determine things as well.

Also, remember, the notorious British tabloid press will be there desperate to wreck the tour, as poisonous stories, real or manufactured, sell papers. A Lions tour is as much decided off as on the field.

I hope the rugby is good and I hope the series is close. However, Lions tours are unique, and there are unique lessons to be learnt from their history.

I hope Warren Gatland learns from 1980 in SA. Look at that wonder try and weep for what it could, and should, have led to.

* Former scrumhalf John Robbie was part of the 1980 Lions squad that toured South Africa.


Saturday Star

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