Leechy in the Lion’s Den: In the dressing room for the Lions’ 1989 tour of Australia

The British and Irish Lions’ 1989 tour of Australia was a landmark series in so many ways.

Not only was it the first Australia-only tour since 1899 (previous expeditions south to the Wallabies’ home turf had also featured fixtures against New Zealand), but the tourists—led by Scotland’s Finlay Calder and head coach Sir Ian McGeechan—became the only Lions side to ever win a tour after tasting defeat in their opening match.

Mark Leech: Paul Ackford and Brian Moore celebrate winning the series 2-1 in Sydney.
Mark Leech: Paul Ackford and Brian Moore celebrate winning the series 2-1 in Sydney.

Yet these achievements weren’t exactly won through a romancing of the game or some grand, Hollywood-esque narrative of sporting redemption.  Instead, the Lions lived up to their names to spark a snarling yet enthralling fight back that turned into a war of Rugby to turnaround the series in the final two Tests.

The second of these encounters came to be known as “the Battle of Ballymore” by the Australian Rugby press, as emotions boiled over and the tow rival forward packs turned the on-field action into a full-blooded fist fight. Unhappy at the brutal and domineering tactics deployed by the Lions, Wallabies’ skipper Nick Farr-Jones reacted to having his foot trodden on by scrum-half Robert Jones, and the two men flew into each other. Their team mates soon followed.

Mark Leech: The Lions and Australia packs clash in Brisbane.
Mark Leech: The Lions and Australia packs clash in Brisbane.

Mike Teague called it, “the most violent game of rugby that has ever been played“, but having been outplayed in the first Test—losing 30-12 in Sydney—the Lions’ newly combative approach was vindicated as they levelled the series 1-1 in Brisbane, winning 19-12.

And so both teams headed back to Sydney for the deciding Test with McGeechan’s tourists ready to fight tooth and nail once more to roar to an unlikely victory.

 

Hugh Godwin of the Independent on Sunday was kind enough to pass on some choice quotes to Offside from the Lions’ No. 8, Dean Richards, on how he and his team mates prepared for the series’ defining showdown.

After the second Test: “The game was as physical as any I’d played in. You sat round afterwards and looked at the Australians and they were absolutely battered. We felt they were going to be a bit more physical than they were on the day.

Mark Leech: Lions manager Clive Rowlands celebrates their victory.
Mark Leech: Lions manager Clive Rowlands celebrates their victory.

“And we said [about the post-match moaning] ‘hold on a minute; it was only a few years ago that you boys gave the Lions and the English a bit of a duffing. So for us it was a reverse sense of satisfaction, that these boys can dish it out but they can’t take it themselves.

“We took all the stuff that was going around in the press. There was some awkward stuff for me, Wade Dooley and Paul Ackford [who all had jobs in the police]. One of the journalists mentioned about us doing to the Australian forwards what we did, because we were policemen, on our beats back in England to ‘Pakistanis and punks’. Which was totally out of order, totally uncalled for, and it showed the level of the attacks from the press upon us. We just sat back and said, so be it.”

Tensions were high on the return to Sydney and the game itself had its moments. Farr-Jones and his opposite numbers Jones got into another punch-up, but his time the forward packs were satisfied with merely facing off from the sidelines rather than throwing down. The Lions had made enough of their own statements of that sort in the previous meeting. Now they wanted to focus on winning the Rugby match, but it was certainly their greater tenacity that continued to turn the tide over skill.

Australia’s David Campese, perhaps the most technically talented and creative player on the park, was overshadowed by his mistakes and the ferocity of the Lions hunger to cause and capitalise on such errors. It was a fitting on-field microcosm that summed up the larger contest that swirled around the individual clashes, as the back was chased down and intimidated into panicked passes and lay-offs that created openings for the tourists.

Mike Teague and Wade Dooley celebrate victory:

The Lions went on to win by the finest of margins, 19-18 to make history, and the beers were soon cracked out in the dressing room after the game. Fortunately, Mark Leech was on hand to snap the festivities within the Lions’ triumphant den.

Speaking to Godwin for his piece in the Independent on Sunday Richards summed up his feelings over the controversial manner in which victory was won:

“It was ridiculous because the Australians love—absolutely love—to be portrayed as the most physical rugby nation around. For them to  then squeal as much as they did do afterwards was quite bizarre.

“Now their rugby’s changed, they haven’t got the hard men they used to have. That’s the way the game’s evolved over there.”

Offside is the UK’s leading independent sports photography agency, home to an extensive collection of classic Rugby World Cup pictures, images from the Lions tours and more. Explore Offside’s unique library at www.welloffside.com.

Follow Offside on Twitter at @welloffside.

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Author: gregianjohnson

Football writer for The Blizzard, FourFourTwo, The Mirror, Squawka and VICE amongst others. Follow me on Twitter at @gregianjohnson.

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