‘We had to win to keep series alive – we had to go for it’

The final act of rugby’s most brutal and bruising battle is, aptly, propelled by a bomb.

retoria, June 27, 2009. The second Test of the Lions’ tour to South Africa. A slow start had undermined the visitors in the opening defeat in Durban and, with six minutes left in Loftus, they are clinging on to a four-point lead which will tie the series.

But the Boks are marching, first Pierre Spies bouncing replacement Ronan O’Gara in the midfield on the 22, prompting another of the day’s numerous concussive blows, such that the Irishman is easily bumped as Jaque Fourie scores in the right corner seconds later. 25-22.

But the Lions recover from the latest physical and psychological blow, Stephen Jones nailing a penalty. 25-25. It is forgotten now, but O’Gara’s pass had drawn this penalty for a high tackle. But it is not quite endgame.

A draw means the Lions cannot win the series. Yet they can still tie it by snatching an improbable late score. But also, of course, they can still lose it.

As the Boks boot for territory with seconds remaining, O’Gara retreats to his 10-metre line. The almost hoarse Miles Harrison, reflecting at once the preceding carnage and, even unwittingly, the calamity to come.

“His bandage reflecting the injuries the Lions have suffered in this match,” he says, as O’Gara, with his right arm windmilling a chase that never comes, launches a right-footed aerial bomb for a chase that never happens.

“Ooh, a penalty! Why?” O’Gara has tackled Fourie du Preez and Christophe Berdos raises his arm. As the clock ticks into red, and from 53 metres at altitude, Morné Steyn, whose clearance had started the play, ends it as the assistant referees raise their flags.

The series is theirs.

Ooh, a penalty! But how?

“He still rages at me now,” smiles Tommy Bowe who, instead of following O’Gara’s punt for glory, somehow drifts towards the touchline where assistant coach Shaun Edwards had been screaming at O’Gara to boot the ball dead.

O’Gara was viciously vilified for his decision but has always remained unbowed, definitive that the quest to seek glory was paramount, rather than settling for a result that would have denied his side the opportunity to win the final Test and, with it, the series.

“If I had enough time to get under the kick, then certainly Tommy did as well,” he said later. All he wanted was a chance to drop a goal like the one that had secured an historic Irish Grand Slam a few months earlier.

“I was out on my feet,” says Bowe; also forgotten is that he was carrying a leg injury, too, but stayed on while both props departed, a dazed O’Driscoll too.

“Listen, it was just heart-breaking for Rog. With all the rejigging, I’d been moved to outside centre. If I was closer to the touchline I could have made it. And if we had tied the match…”

But they didn’t. A third Test romp provided a win in the final battle but this sporting war was lost. One which had reached its zenith – or, depending on one’s perception, its nadir – in a second Test of vicious gouging and concussive, unpunished assaults, culminating in that extraordinary finale.

Jamie Heaslip was there, too, amongst those whose breaths were thieved not only by sheer exhaustion but puzzlement as the Munster man launched his hopeful howitzer.

His initial reaction – “Jesus, what’s he doing!” – doesn’t chime with the dressing-room solidarity later when the squad consolidated their thoughts.

“We had to win to keep the thing alive,” says Heaslip now.

“We had to go for it to a certain degree. It’s a funny moment. When I look back I don’t think I’ve ever seen Rog chase his own Garryowen before.

“But listen, he always really welcomed me into squads and I always loved his competitive edge. So it doesn’t surprise me he went for it in the end.

“To rob Conor McGregor’s phrase, ‘We’re not here to take part.’ And maybe my reaction is again in that intense moment.

“But afterwards, we’re in the dressing-room and we’ve all gone through it together, not alone. We could have folded but we established our pride in that third Test. I would have loved a series win but that’s what he was going after.”

And yet, despite winning a Grand Slam in a season he describes as the best of his sporting life, Bowe reckons that summer series, despite its ultimate failure, represented for him the “best rugby experience of my life”.

A strange kind of glory.

But that is what makes being a Lions tourist so special. And, perhaps, may mark 2021 down as an utterly soulless affair, even if the tourists notch a rare triumph.

For how can the human spirit thrive, in defeat or victory, if their feelings cannot be shared so widely and freely?

Bowe was selected for two tours of duty, and enjoyed a series win in Australia four years later, but still firmly reckons that 2009 represented something uniquely special.

“Pretoria still pains me,” admits Bowe, now a popular presenter on Virgin Media TV. “But that tour was the best rugby experience of my life.

“It was my first tour with them, so I suppose I had nothing to benchmark it against. Rooming with Stephen Jones at the time, he told me fairly early on that it was a completely different ball game to 2005 which had obviously had a different atmosphere. There were no shared rooms in ’05 for one example.

“We were led by Paulie (O’Connell) and Ian McGeechan and everyone just seemed to integrate and become as one with so much ease. But my that second Test!”

If the pre-match scenes he describes with such grisly exhilaration painted such a picture, it is little wonder that what transpired on the field resembled a war zone.

“From the atmosphere going into the ground on the thronged streets, supporters pushing our bus from side to side, guys sitting in trucks pretending to slit their throats with their thumbs.

“It was like something you’d see on TV in Galatasaray. It was just so intimidating. It was intense but exhilarating. And then in the dressing-rooms, you can hear the thump in the stands underneath.”

On Saturday afternoon at Loftus, the silence stood as a monument to the great deceit of 2021, which has detained the Lions’ supporters and imprisoned its players, as all the while a pandemic rages across this continent.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between playing and winning at all costs.

As Bowe reflects now, it seems understandable that the 2009 summer stands out, maybe because the months that had preceded it had been so special.

Ireland’s historic Grand Slam, their first since 1948, had capped a restorative season under Declan Kidney and for Bowe, forever recalled for an O’Gara kick he did chase to score on that unforgettable afternoon in Cardiff.

Winging it in his first year at the Ospreys after leaving a decaying Ulster outfit, life couldn’t be any better and a six-strong contingent for that ’09 tour reflected the club’s then strength, even if Munster had comprehensively denied them in a European Cup semi-final.

Bowe was on fire that year.

“Without a doubt,” he agrees. “That first and second season with Ospreys were completely transformative in my career.

“I got a new lease of life in the sport. They played in a different way to what I had been used to and that managed to take all the pressure off me. And I got more respect in Irish camp because they could see how I was performing now.”

McGeechan spotted the signs too and Bowe became a mainstay in South Africa.

“They were keen for me to be a roving winger and pop up all over the pitch and that suited me as a game-plan. And in terms of the social side of it, I was very close with the Welsh and Irish as well so everything just combined perfectly.”

He has other sporting regrets from that colossal collision in Pretoria; chiefly, in the build-up to Bryan Habana’s 63rd-minute try; “I probably should have put my shoulder into Fourie.”

But the memories and bonds linger stronger still, more so in defeat compared to the victory of four years later.

But 2013 was just as remarkable; against Queensland he broke a bone in his right hand; on the same night, his family and girlfriend were landing in Sydney, starting a tour that was now finished for Bowe.

And yet somehow he recovered for the final two Tests, scything a 10-week injury to just three; to end the summer in triumph, meeting James Bond and partying on Bondi Beach.

This year, the Lions can’t even socialise with each other.

“With the bubble, it makes it really tough and then you have social media following every movement,” he says.

He’d prefer to remember the way things were.

Perhaps the smart folks who run the Lions might have taken a recall of that too before launching their delusional escapade.

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