The eighties had not been all that kind to the British and Irish Lions before 1989. In fact, the decade had been such a disappointment thus far, that David Hands, writing in The Times, described the period as "the toothless eighties", after a 3-1 loss in South Africa in 1980, and a 4-0 crushing against New Zealand in 1983. A proposed tour to South Africa was postponed in 1986, the political issue of apartheid too big to simply sweep under the carpet, so by the time of the 1989 tour to Australia, the arrival of the inaugural World Cup, along with a growth in international tours, led some to question the whole concept of the Lions in an ever changing rugby landscape.
If the Lions needed a decent tour to Australia - their first international matches in that country since 1966 - then the men chosen to lead the assault down under were undeniably of the right stock. Coach Ian McGeechan and his assistant Roger Uttley had been members of the successful 1974 Lions squad that swept through South Africa, manager Clive Rowlands was vastly experienced and had helped Wales to a fine third-placed finish in the 1987 World Cup, and skipper Finlay Calder would lead the team from the front with some notable performances on and off the field, although he was not totally devoid of problems along the way.
The squad taken to Australia reflected the fact that England and Scotland had experienced more fruitful Five Nations campaigns than the Welsh and Irish in 1989; in all England had ten players in the thirty-man party, Scotland 9, Wales 7 and Ireland 4:
Peter Dods (Sco), Gavin Hastings (Sco)
Ieuan Evans (Wal), Mike Hall* (Wal), Chris Oti (Eng), Rory Underwood (Eng)
John Devereux (Wal), Jeremy Guscott** (Eng), Scott Hastings (Sco), Brendan Mullin (Ire)
Craig Chalmers (Sco), Paul Dean (Ire)
Gary Armstrong (Sco), Robert Jones (Wal)
Gareth Chilcott (Eng), Mike Griffiths (Wal), David Sole (Sco), Dai Young (Wal)
Brian Moore (Eng), Steve Smith (Ire)
Paul Ackford (Eng), Wade Dooley (Eng), Donal Lenihan (Ire), Robert Norster (Wal)
Finlay Calder (Sco), John Jeffrey (Sco), Andy Robinson (Eng), Mike Teague (Eng)
Dean Richards (Eng), Derek White (Sco)
* Hall joined the tour late, due to sitting his final Cambridge University exams.
** Guscott replaced Will Carling in the original squad, after Carling withdrew with a shin injury.
On an unusually short tour of just twelve matches in a little over a month, fitness would be key, and in this respect the Lions squad were identified as probably the finest yet. The selected players were put through their paces during two days of intense physical training before their departure - Brian Moore came out on top amongst the forwards, with Craig Chalmers the fittest of the backs - as McGeechan and the coaching staff were determined to leave no stone unturned and ensure that the players were as prepared as possible. Throughout the subsequent warm-up matches, the Lions' extra fitness reserves would often prove crucial, demonstrated by a number of emphatic second half performances in the lead-up to the first Test.
The opening match against Western Australia in Perth was as comfortable as could have been hoped for, although the 44-0 win did come at a cost. Lenihan, Sole and Norster all required stitches in head wounds in a bruising battle, yet for Ireland's Paul Dean the tour would be over pretty much before it had begun. After just 27 minutes, Dean damaged his knee to such an extent that within a few days England's Rob Andrew was sent for, which in the meantime placed a heavy emphasis on the 20-year-old Chalmers to stake a claim for the fly-half role in the forthcoming Tests. The youngster certainly laid down an early marker, setting up Ieuan Evans for the Lions' opening try after just two minutes on the pitch, and gaining high praise from the press and Australians alike for his mature display.
There were naturally positives in such a heavy win though; nine tries were scored - Mullin (3), Underwood (2), Evans, White, Moore and Scott Hastings - and coach McGeechan was equally as impressed by the sometimes desperate defence needed to prevent their opponents from scoring. "One of the important numbers on the scoreboard was nil," purred McGeechan, as the Lions moved on to Melbourne to tackle the much harder prospect of Australia B, a side containing nine Australian internationals.
Dean Richards was selected to captain the team in place of the rested Calder, but the onlooking Scotsman must have been inwardly smiling, as all of the Lions points came via the hands or boot of his compatriots. Despite trailing 14-7 at half-time, and conceding three tries in the match during atrocious conditions, the Lions ran out 23-18 winners, via tries from Jeffrey (2), and Armstrong, along with three penalties and a conversion by Gavin Hastings. "The 20 minutes after half-time was some of the most pleasing rugby we have seen on the tour so far," stated McGeechan, who must have been doubly delighted that his team did not concede a single penalty in the second period. Two down and four to go, yet waiting round the corner were Queensland in Brisbane, a significant step-up in quality for the touring side.
With seven of the Queensland line-up already capped by Australia, including five forwards and fly-half Michael Lynagh, McGeechan's assertion that they were the probably the best-organised side in Australia was hard to argue with. Having recently scored over 30 points on two separate occasions against their old rivals New South Wales, and with suggestions that their whole pack could represent Australia in the first Test, there was no doubting the battle ahead for the Lions team aiming to maintain their unbeaten start to the tour. McGeechan however insisted that his line-up to face Queensland was not his Test team, stating that he was still searching for the combinations in the run-up to the international matches.
Unsurprisingly the match was not for the faint-hearted, with three Queensland players needing stitches and their skipper Bill Campbell floored at one point after receiving a punch (allegedly from Norster), with Teague and Hall badly raked in the numerous rucks, in a match that referee Sandy MacNeill let drift, putting in a laissez-faire performance according to The Times, and a travesty of a display in the opinion of the Daily Express' Tony Bodley. The Lions again trailed at half-time (12-10), but scored the only try of the match after an excellent dummy by scrum-half Jones, and three penalties from Gavin Hastings and two drop goals from Chalmers, against Lynagh's four penalties and one drop goal, gave the visitors a morale-boosting 19-15 win.
The team not only impressed by protecting their try-line, but also through their ability to take on their southern hemisphere opponents in regards of rucking and fitness. Another plus was the Lions also winning the scrummaging battle, taking on what was regarded as the best scrum outside the national team, and beating them, even though the Australian habit at the time of collapsing the scrums was beginning to irritate and worry McGeechan, as it had done for the touring England team the year before. "They were surprised by our scrummaging and they were on the back foot from the start," crowed the Lions coach, adding "It was a cruel psychological blow and they must have begun to question themselves." Campbell was less enamoured though with the Lions approach: "We know now how you guys play and we will be ready for you. I hope we give you some of it back." The war of words was just beginning.
The 30-6 win over Queensland B was a lot more comfortable. Led by Lenihan - his popular midweek team would soon earn the affectionate tag of 'Donal's Donuts' - the match saw Andrew make his first appearance on tour since his late arrival, his handling assured throughout and when he set up Oti for a try in the second half. Further tries from forwards Smith, Dooley and Robinson, and another try shutout - the Lions' third of the tour - continued the momentum nicely, even if the display was a little ragged at times, Bodley opining that "this was the worst performance of the tour". As the much sterner test of New South Wales awaited, McGeechan had hoped to play a near Test team at the North Sydney Oval (moved from the Concord Oval due to pitch conditions), but injury doubts over both Sole and Scott Hastings were a cause for concern, with Oti and Teague adding to the selectorial headache after the Sydney match, which almost saw the Lions unbeaten run come to an end.
A determined home team which contained ten Wallabies, including the likes of David Campese, Nick Farr-Jones, Steve Cutler, Dan Crowley and Steve Tuynman, came within two minutes of defeating the Lions, in another feisty encounter. The lineout was particularly abrasive, with three separate wrestling matches taking place at one point in the match, Farr-Jones' calling this area a "dockyard brawl". Trailing 9-7 at half-time, Gavin Hastings took advantage of a Campese mistake (not the last one of the tour), as the Aussie winger failed to find touch with his kick, allowing Hastings to go over for a try. When Norster drove over for another score, the Lions had surged to an eight point lead in a superb 12 minute period in the second half, only for Marty Roebuck's try, conversion, and late penalty to edge the home team 21-20 in front. The Lions still had time to surge to the New South Wales 22-metre line, giving the unflappable Chalmers the opportunity to drop the goal that kept the 100% record intact.
Calder may well have breathed a sigh of relief after the narrow escape, but his lack of form in his three tour matches, along with a run-in with referee Col Waldron - some felt Calder lucky to escape a sending-off after laying a hand on the shoulder of the official - meant that further questions were raised about the role of the skipper in the Lions team, with suggestions that Robinson was threatening his place in the starting XV. The skipper would sit out the final warm-up match before the internationals, Sole captaining the side against New South Wales B in place of the injured Lenihan, as the Lions easily brushed aside their opponents 39-19.
A brace of tries from Hall and Underwood, as well as the standard Scottish contributions from Scott Hastings, Armstrong and Sole, helped the Lions to a straight forward victory, 30 points coming in the second half alone as if to prove the extra fitness of the visitors was a telling factor. Sole though was not totally pleased with the display, commenting that "It was frustrating that we could not do more off our own ball", the mistakes of the opposition bringing most of the Lions' scores, rather than fluid teamwork or a moment of individual brilliance. Still a win was a win, and at least the Lions could approach the first Test with a degree of optimism.
Admittedly there may well have been crucial injury problems surrounding Teague and Scott Hastings, but with a perfect record on tour prior to the Test series, the Lions could not have asked for a better springboard before taking on the Australians. Many envisaged a tight tussle, pointing out that whereas the Lions had been training and playing matches for weeks, Australia had not played a Test for seven months, with coach Bob Dwyer complaining about the lack of opportunities he had to be bring the squad together. With the Lions fit, well prepared and unbeaten, the predictions of a close match looked accurate.
What could possibly go wrong for the Lions? Quite a lot as it turned out, but that is a story for another day.