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How the Lions roared back into life

The British and Irish Lions ended 16 years of hurt and were reinvigorated as a world rugby force following their spectacular Test series success in Australia.

The Lions headed Down Under knowing they faced intense pressure to deliver.

Not since 1997 in South Africa under the guidance of Lions coaching king Ian McGeechan had they prevailed overseas, losing three series in a row to Australia, New Zealand and the Springboks.

Such a barren run had caused some commentators and pundits to question the Lions' very existence if they failed to end that sequence, but it proved a recovery act worth waiting for.

Warren Gatland, whose reign as Wales coach had reaped two Six Nations Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final appearance, masterminded the Australia mission, with Wales captain Sam Warburton becoming his country's first Lions tour leader since Phil Bennett 36 years previously.

England captain Chris Robshaw proved the major surprise omission from Gatland's 37-man tour squad, while there was a late withdrawal when hooker Dylan Hartley's sending-off in the Aviva Premiership final at Twickenham prompted a lengthy ban and destroyed his Lions dream.

In a Lions first, the tourists stopped off in sweltering Hong Kong for an appointment with the Barbarians. The Lions predictably won comfortably, but as an exercise in terms of tour preparation it was largely pointless.

The real business began against Western Force in Perth, where full-back Leigh Halfpenny's goalkicking masterclass set the tone for similar feats later on tour, but there was also a first major injury blow as ankle ligament damage ended Ireland prop Cian Healy's trip.

Healy was soon to be joined in making an early flight home by Wales prop Gethin Jenkins - a calf muscle problem meant Jenkins took no part on tour - and several players were called up at various points of the 10-match trip, providing injury cover.

That list included England backs Billy Twelvetrees, Brad Barritt and Christian Wade, red rose prop Alex Corbisiero, who played a key role in the Test series, Ireland's Simon Zebo and even veteran Wales wing Shane Williams.

Williams, a Lion in 2005 and 2009, had retired from Test rugby and was playing in Japan, but he answered Gatland's shock SOS and started against the Canberra-based Brumbies, one of only two defeats suffered on tour.

The Lions built towards the Test series opener in Brisbane by winning five out of six games, and they arrived at Suncorp Stadium as marginal favourites for an encounter that did not disappoint.

A clash of unremitting intensity claimed Wallabies centre and Test debutant Christian Leali'ifano as its first casualty after just 52 seconds when he was knocked out attempting to tackle Jonathan Davies.

Team-mates Berrick Barnes and Pat McCabe followed Leali'ifano out of the action, but Wallabies newcomer Israel Folau - a former star of rugby league and Aussie Rules - scored Australia's opening try that was quickly cancelled out by juggernaut Lions wing George North. Folau and North quickly became series box-office figures.

North's fellow Wales wing Alex Cuthbert scored a second try for the Lions, but it remained nip and tuck, with Wallabies full-back Kurtley Beale missing two late penalty shots - the latter after he slipped attempting the game's final kick - and the Lions prevailed 23-21.

On to Melbourne a week later, and another contest that underlined such small margins between the teams.

This time, though, Australia triumphed, scoring the game's solitary try through Adam Ashley-Cooper six minutes from time, before Halfpenny, who had already kicked five penalties, missed a long-range effort in the final minute.

As in 2001 when the Lions last visited Australia, it meant a Test series decider in Sydney, and neither the match itself nor its intense build-up disappointed.

Gatland made six changes in his starting XV, while lock Alun-Wyn Jones replaced an injured Warburton as skipper, but the absence of centre Brian O'Driscoll created a storm.

Gatland, who as Ireland coach had given O'Driscoll his Test debut in 1999, opted for an all-Welsh midfield pairing of Davies and a fit-again Jamie Roberts. It sparked an outcry, particularly on social media, but the Lions let their rugby do all the talking.

Corbisiero scored a try inside two minutes, and the Lions never looked back, with North, Jonathan Sexton and Roberts adding second-half touchdowns as the tourists' 41-16 victory saw them post more points than in any previous Test match the Lions had played.

It was a rampant performance that confirmed the Lions' roar was back, and a perfect way to sign off before an altogether tougher challenge in 2017 - the All Blacks in New Zealand.


From Belfast Telegraph