From a results point of view there could be no doubting that so far the 1989 Lions tour to Australia had been a roaring success (excuse the obvious pun). Unbeaten in six matches against opposition of varying abilities, the team had at times ground out results with some strong second half displays, but although their record was impressive, not all were convinced that the performances were anything to write home about.
The Times' David Hands, previewing the first Test, voiced concerns over the progress of the tourists, urging caution after what he perceived as a downturn in recent displays: "Two weeks ago it would have been easy to forecast victory for the British Isles against Australia at the Sydney Football Stadium tomorrow. Perversely, the form of the party since then, even though they have kept winning, has lent only limited encouragement to such hopes; it is a bit like plunging a spade into a new garden and finding a nasty layer of clay just beneath a promising surface." Sadly for supporters of the Lions, Hands' assessment had an element of truth to it, especially after what was to follow on Saturday July 1.
As with any Lions tour, injuries were not helping the cause. In the week leading up to the first Test in Sydney, winger Chris Oti was ruled out of the tour, to be replaced by Wales' Tony Clement, yet it was key setbacks to Scott Hastings (hamstring) and Mike Teague (shoulder) which threatened plans for the Australia match. Further problems surrounding John Devereux (ankle), Donal Lenihan (shoulder) and Wade Dooley (knee) hardly helped, and the tale of woe continued when full back Gavin Hastings hurt his back whilst sleeping on an unsuitable hotel bed (a new one was promptly ordered). Luckily Hastings would make the Test, but the absence of his brother and of Teague would force the Lions management into some brave decisions.
Although Hastings had played against New South Wales B in the match prior to the Test, he was not considered fit enough to play in an international fixture, his place going to Wales' Mike Hall. Strangely, Hall had yet to play a match on tour as a centre, even though he played all his club rugby in that position, with all his appearances so far coming as a winger in Australia. Hall was genuinely shocked, as many were, at his call-up, admitting that "I'm delighted, but a bit surprised." In fairness, the concerns over Hastings and Devereux, coupled with the fact that Jeremy Guscott was seen by some as too inexperienced, forced the hand of coach Ian McGeechan, although the decision taken over Teague's replacement was a little more controversial.
It was assumed that Teague's place would go to Scotland's John Jeffrey, until it was revealed that it would be his fellow countryman Derek White who would occupy the blindside flanker role in the XV. As with Hall, all of White's matches on tour had been in a different position to the one he was selected for (number 8), and although he had played as a flanker for Scotland on five occasions, the selection did seem a little odd. "I prefer No. 8 because you are more in the game. I am sure I can handle it," indicated White, but the fact remained that the choice of White was a peculiar selection, and a decision that would be questioned ad nauseum come the end of the match.
One advantage the Lions had of course was the fact that they had been training and playing together for weeks, whereas Australian coach Bob Dwyer had been bemoaning the fact that he had been unable to gather his squad for any lengthy training sessions. Australia had played their last Test eight months ago, and in the meantime they had been hit with a couple of rugby league defections in Andrew Leeds and Michael Cook, and the retirement of Andy McIntyre, although he later rescinded this decision after seeing the mauling that the Lions front row had dished out during the Queensland tour match.
This led to first caps being handed to full back Greg Martin, centre Dominic Maguire, and prop Dan Crowley, although plenty of experience remained - "It's a side which Bob Dwyer feels comfortable with," stated McGeechan - and in players such as skipper Nick Farr-Jones, Michael Lynagh and David Campese, as well as a strong pack with the likes of Steve Cutler and Steve Tuynman in their ranks, the task ahead for the Lions was still daunting, even if many felt that the opening Test would be the visitors best chance to beat the hosts.
The Daily Express' Tony Bodley was at least bullish concerning the Lions chances: "If the Lions maintain their discipline and shackle fly-half Michael Lynagh, the world record Test points scorer, I take them to win a high-scoring match." Bodley was right about the high-scoring match; unfortunately his prediction of a Lions win, and his hopes of shackling Michael Lynagh were blown out of the water by a shambolic display that was so one-sided and embarrassing that it made you want to throw a brick through your television, destroy every radio in the house, and never read another newspaper until the nightmare had faded.
Martin, Niuqila, Maguire, Walker, Campese, Lynagh, Farr-Jones; Lillicrap, Lawton, Crowley, Campbell, Cutler, Gourley, Miller, Tuynman
G Hastings (S), Evans (W), Hall (W), Mullin (I), Underwood (E), Chalmers (S), Jones (W); Sole (S), Moore (E), Young (W), Ackford (E), Norster (W), White (S), Calder (S), Richards (E)
A 39,433 crowd crammed in to witness the first ever Test at the Sydney Football Ground were probably expecting an even contest. But after the first quarter things began to unravel for the Lions, so much so that Hands justifiably summarised that "It was as though Australia had been together for a month (rather than two days) and the Lions were an untried combination." A Lynagh drop-goal had given the Wallabies an early lead, only for two Gavin Hastings penalties to edge the Lions in front. And that was as good as it got for the visitors, as Australia scored their first try and never looked back.
Lynagh's clever kick behind the scrum eventually saw the ball end up in the hands of centre Lloyd Walker, who could not fail to score, and when Scott Gourley added another try eight minutes later, after a shortened lineout, the Lions were faced with a half-time deficit of 15-6. Australia were easily winning all the key battles; Cutler was dominating the lineouts, Maguire was stifling the runs of Hastings, flanker Miller was sweeping up the majority of loose balls, and the Lions back row were disjointed to such an extent that it was becoming evident that they had not played together on tour until that fateful day.
Australia were forced into a couple of changes in the front row, with Mark McBain replacing Tom Lawton at hooker, and Cameron Lillicrap making way for Mark Hartill, but it was very much as you were as the second half progressed. After 47 minutes, Lynagh stretched the lead further, his penalty from 47-metres easily sailing over, the Lions struggles highlighted when Chalmers had to take over kicking responsibilities from Hastings after the latter had missed three kicks. Australia would not let the Lions back into the match, swarming forwards and pressurising their opponents into repeated mistakes, and as the match wore on, it was a case of when the final knockout blow would arrive.
On 59 minutes the match was all but over, when Maguire scored on his debut, after good work again from Campese and Lynagh, saw the centre bundle over. Martin also got in on the act on 75 minutes, running in a simple try after another well-worked set-piece move from a scrum. Thankfully, New Zealand referee Keith Lawrence soon put the Lions and their supporters out of their misery - including those stupid enough like me to have woken at 6am to watch the live coverage on BBC 1 - and as the dejected players left the field, it seemed as if the Lions poor Test record in the 1980s was about to get a whole lot worse in the coming weeks.
McGeechan gave an earnest assessment on the Lions 30-12 defeat, their third heaviest touring defeat in history: "Some of the players froze on the big occasion. Their work-rate was way short of a Test performance and I am bitterly disappointed." A visibly choked-up Calder struggled to keep a check on his emotions in the post-match interviews, saying "I think we are better people for it and I hope to speak in a different voice next Saturday." Both Scots must have known that there would be plenty of stick coming their way, and the press did not hold back.
The backlash was, as expected, instant and damning. "Toothless Lions are facing a whitewash" stated the Daily Express headline, with Bodley labelling the players as "toothless pussy-cats". Skipper Calder came in for particular criticism for his display, although others, such as Chalmers and Hall were also targeted. Bodley again was forthright in his opinion on the besieged Calder: "He lacks the necessary pace as an open-side flanker and did nothing to whip up his turgid team", with many papers hinting at a chance for Andy Robinson come Brisbane. But perhaps the most worrying of Bodley's views centred on the hopes for the rest of the tour: "It is difficult to see how morale can be restored before Saturday's second Test at Brisbane". In the cold light of day, you really couldn't disagree with this; the Lions tour looked doomed to failure.
There was a small window of optimism if you squinted hard enough. Surely the Lions could only get better - they couldn't play any worse - and there were positive noises being made from the camp relating to the injuries to Dooley, Teague and Scott Hastings. McGeechan, the coaches, and the squad faced an important six days in the lead-up to Brisbane, and many key selectorial decisions would need to be taken. But as I spent the rest of the day in a mood, it was hard to be positive.
The humiliating defeat at the hands of Australia completed a horrible sporting week against our old enemy. The Tuesday before, England had lost the Lord's Test to go 2-0 down in the Ashes series, and everywhere you looked there was a reminder of Australian dominance, be it on television in the form of Neighbours, or the charts, with the likes of Kylie, Jason, Midnight Oil, and Stefan Dennis (yes, Stefan Dennis!) flying high in the charts. Don't it make you feel good? No it didn't Stefan, it really didn't, and as thoughts turned to the next Test, the prospect of another Australian-induced thrashing filled me with dread.