Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Get your retaliation in first" - Willie John McBride

Paul O'Connell is lucky that Tendai Mtawarira has a ridiculous nickname, that Andy Murray is moody and Michael Vaughan is quitting.

Were it not for these distractions, you expect that O'Connell would be suffering a verbal beating from the English press at the moment.

The 2009 Lions tour to South Africa should not and cannot be described as a failure. The 2005 tour was a failure - it was shallow, commercial, self-important and undignified.

The mythical notion of the Lions as they were can never be recreated in an era of world cups, autumn tests and professionalism. But to its credit, 2009 was something closer to the expeditions of yore.

We may not have seen Phil Bennett and JJ Williams running double overlaps; Willie John McBride and Bobby Windsor querying the bone structure of Boland Coetzee's jaw or a series win over the Springboks a la 1974.

But the fact that O'Connell's Lions lost two of the most savagely brutal and utterly compelling test matches in history should not be a source of shame.

Lest we forget, since Lions tours began in 1910 they have been more often won against than won. In the professional era, the prospect of a scratch team beating one of the tri-nations on their own patch over a three game series is growing more unlikely by the day.

A judgement of this year's tour, and Paul O'Connell's captaincy, cannot be made through such simple criteria of winning and losing. Though you expect Stephen Jones, a jingoist of a writer if there ever was one, will attempt to hang O'Connell by any imaginary petard he can find.

This would be totally unfair.

Would this team, if lead by Brian O'Driscoll, Phil Vickery or even Stephen Jones' ludicrous pre-tour pick Ryan Jones (the cheek of it), have fared better in those defeats at King's Park and Loftus Versfeld?

Would the tiny margins of the victory and defeat have rearranged themselves in the Lions' favour because the armband lay elsewhere? No.

In professional test match rugby the captain is less a dictator than a first amongst equals, usually a triumvirate. O'Connell did not lead this side on his own, and should not be blamed for its defeat.

As the Lions leave South Africa, questions and frustrations and regrets will follow them.

But the tour has achieved what was it its core to do - portray Northern Hemisphere rugby in as positive a light as possible; to be fair, aggressive, competitive and skilled.

Whether this creates a win or a loss at the end is always at the mercy of the game. Paul O'Connell was a good captain for a good tour, and both he and the 2009 Lions will be remembered as such.

Don't let Stephen Jones or anyone else convince you otherwise.

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