Lions 1993: So close to glory

Led by coach Ian McGeechan and captain Gavin Hastings, the 1993 British and Irish Lions side came within a whisker of rare Test series victory in New Zealand.

The Lions arrived in New Zealand with a squad packed with talent. In the backs, established world class names like Ieuan Evans, Gavin Hastings, Jeremy Guscott and Will Carling were sprinkled with rising stars like speedsters Rory and Tony Underwood and Welsh dynamo Scott Gibbs.

The forwards were just as imposing with the giant English pair of Martin Bayfield and Martin Johnson joined by fierce competitors like Jason Leonard, Dean Richards and Ben Clarke to make for a rugged and experienced pack.

The Lions started their 13 match tour with four straight wins over Northland, North Harbour, Wellington and Canterbury. With an eye on the first Test, the Lions dropped a game to Otago before dispatching Southland 34-16.

With a 5-1 winning record, the Lions were ready for the first Test against the All Blacks.

The first Test was played in front of a packed house at Lancaster Park in Christchurch and started in controversial circumstances. After just two minutes of play, Grant Fox launched a booming high kick straight into the arms of Ieaun Evans on the Lions try-line. As Evans landed on the ground, All Blacks centre Frank Bunce wrapped his arms around Evans and both players crashed over the line. The referee arrived a split second later and awarded a try to the All Blacks – despite doubt over which player grounded the ball first.

This was to be the only time the try-line was breached all game as the defence from either team remained stoic throughout. The match turned into a penalty shoot-out between two of the finest boots in the game with Grant Fox and Gavin Hastings trading shots throughout. It was to be Fox who had the final say by landing a shot from 50 metres out to claim the 20-18 win for the All Blacks.

Although disappointed, the Lions bounced back in the best possible fashion by putting 49 points on an experienced Taranaki side featuring names like Kieran Crowley, Mark ‘Bull’ Allen and Gordon Slater in the next tour match.

The next two tour games weren’t as successful with losses to Auckland and Hawke’s Bay not offering the best preparation for the ‘must-win’ second Test.

Played on a sun-drenched Athletic Park, the second Test started in identical fashion to the first for the Lions. A high kick from Grant Fox was bobbled on the line and this time Eroni Clarke was on hand to score For the All Blacks. Fox added the extras to give the All Blacks a 7-0 lead after 10 minutes.

But it was a different Lions side in Wellington. Instead of kicking to touch, the Lions kept the ball in play by kicking down the touchline and meeting the All Blacks with ferocious defence. This was eximplified when the All Blacks attacking kingpin John Kirwan went on a run down the sideline only to be thumped in a ferocious tackle by Lions loose forward Ben Clarke.

The Lions grew in confidence as Gavin Hastings landed a number of crucial penalties before the turning point came in the 60th minute. A turnover on the halfway line was quickly swooped on by Jeremy Guscott who fed to Rory Underwood to scorch fifty metres to the try-line.

Hastings added another penalty late in the first half to secure the commanding 20-7 win for the Lions to square the series.

As the tour neared its completion, the Lions were brought back down to earth with a 38-10 loss to Waikato before the final Test.

With the series tied up at 1-1, the final Test proved a bridge to far for the Lions as the All Blacks stormed to a 30-13 victory.

In the most expansive game of the series, the All Blacks ran in three tries to Frank Bunce, Sean Fitzpatrick and Jon Preston while the Lions answered back with one to young star Scott Gibbs.

The victory secured a well-deserved series victory for the All Blacks, but the Lions were left to lament the decision to award Bunce a try in the opening minutes of the first Test. A decision which many Lions fans believe cost them a series victory in New Zealand.

Captain Gavin Hastings summed up what it meant to beat the All Blacks in the second Test: “The All Blacks are the benchmark in international rugby and to beat them in a Test is the greatest possible thrill and achievement for the Lions squad. In Wellington, we produced 80 minutes of outstanding rugby of the highest class to win convincingly. It is hard to exaggerate the tremendous feeling of satisfaction every player experienced right through that game and on the final whistle,” Hastings said.

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