It is hard to imagine a more depressing scene than the Lions' dressing room at the conclusion of their 30-12 thrashing against Australia in the first Test at Sydney. Out scored by four tries to nil, out fought and out thought, the job of surveying the wreckage and picking up the players must have looked a daunting prospect to coaches McGeechan and Uttley, along with manager Rowlands, but with only six days until the second Test at Brisbane, there was very little time for wallowing in defeat or licking of wounds.
"Tactically we didn't do what we said we would do," stated McGeechan, although he was sure in the lead-up to the second Test that his squad were now well versed in what was to be expected of them: "Now they know quite clearly what aim they have in mind and I have mapped out the priorities for them." Through all the criticism flung at the team, McGeechan remained convinced that the squad were the most committed he had ever worked with, adding that the players did not mysteriously become poor overnight. But of the many clouds that hung over the Lions tour, the darkest of all remained the form of the skipper Calder, an issue that refused to go away between Test matches.
Such was Calder's devastation after the first Test, that he took the defeat very personally, even fronting the squad and offering to stand down if it was the best for the team. The players and management turned down the request, and vowed to back their skipper. It was probably just as well; come the end of the week Calder was pretty much the only fit flanker in the squad.
The midweek fixture against the Australian Capital Territories took on even greater significance in the wake of the first Test capitulation. David Hands' assertion in The Times that "The response of the whole party in terms of character and commitment against ACT will be instructive too" turned out to be prophetic, as what was to follow developed into the turning point of the tour. Trailing 18-4 and 21-11, the Lions were beginning to resemble a rabble, the whole campaign in danger of heading down the plughole. Luckily, the tipping point had been reached, and from now no one would be laughing at the Lions in Australia.
The performance of Donal's Doughnuts may not have pretty, many experts, including the ACT skipper Brad Girvan, lambasting the Lions for not utilising their backs more, but in terms of character, the response in turning such a deficit into a 41-25 win was telling. Winger Mike Hall, one of the try scorers, spoke recently of the importance of the ACT match: "When we came back to the dressing room after the match, the players who were not playing – the Test team – lined the narrow corridor and clapped us in. We sat in the changing room for a long while and said that we were not going to lose another game. There had been a momentum shift: every tour has its decisive point where it can go one way or the other. How we responded when we were 21-11 down was ours in 1989."
With a mini-crisis averted, McGeechan turned his attentions to assessing his injury list and attempting to pick a winning formula for the fast approaching Test match. The return of Wade Dooley and Scott Hastings against ACT was a bonus, but injury doubts over flankers John Jeffrey, Andy Robinson, and most importantly Mike Teague, were a major headache, delaying the announcement of the Test XV until the latest time possible. Teague would come through a late fitness test on his shoulder and replace Derek White, McGeechan praising the work of his medical staff (Ben Gilfeather and Kevin Murphy) in getting the England man ready, and the inclusion of Dooley in place of Rob Norster, gave the pack a very English look (Brian Moore, Paul Ackford and Dean Richards also selected).
Two other Englishmen were also drafted into the backs department. Rob Andrew's selection in place of the inexperienced Craig Chalmers was hardly a surprise, yet Jeremy Guscott's Lions debut was a little unexpected, although the youngster was definitely confident enough to make his bow. For Guscott, it completed a heady three months, in which he had won the league and cup with Bath, and scored a hat-trick on his England debut against Romania, before slowly showing on tour that he had the ability to mix it at the top level. His partner at centre was confirmed as Scott Hastings, finally declared 100% fit after battling a hamstring strain. The pair replaced Hall and Brendan Mullin, the absence of the latter meaning that there was no Irish representation in the final XV.
Australia made two changes from their first Test starting side; winger Ian Williams returned to the team after finishing his final exams at Oxford, Acura Niuqila making way, and Cameron Lillicrap had not fully recovered from the injury that saw him leave the field at Sydney, his replacement on the day Mark Hartill once again filling the void. The team were in a naturally confident state of mind prior to the Test, and it would have been a brave man, or a particularly mad Brit, to see any way back for the Lions. Indeed, Hands again seemed to hit the nail on the head, writing on the eve of the match that "There is no obvious reason to suggest that the Lions can, in a week, recover the ground they have already lost", which at the time was an opinion that you really couldn't disagree with.
Martin, Williams, Maguire, Walker, Campese, Lynagh, Farr-Jones; Hartill, Lawton, Crowley, Campbell, Cutler, Gourley, Miller, Tuynman
G Hastings (S), Evans (W), S Hastings (S), Guscott (E), Underwood (E), Andrew (E), Jones (W); Sole (S), Moore (E), Young (W), Ackford (E), Dooley (E), Teague (E), Calder (S), Richards (E)
From the off it was apparent that if the Lions were going to go down then they would do so fighting. The team had spoken in great lengths about not taking a backward step, and in a bruising encounter, given the obligatory Battle of Ballymore title, the first five minutes set the tone for the what was to follow. At a scrum, Rob Jones, already irked at some rough treatment from Steve Tuynman and Jeff Miller, and continuing a feud that had started during the New South Wales match with his fellow scrum half, threw the first brick into the hornets nest, treading on Nick Farr-Jones' foot, prompting a free-for-all involving both packs. As French referee Rene Hourquet grappled on the floor with the two scrum-halves, he must have been aware that he was in for a very interesting day.
The biggest moment of controversy was yet to come; Dai Young's blatant kick aimed at Steve Cutler's head in a ruck set the wheels in motion for another scrap, with the Welsh prop extremely lucky to stay on the pitch. In all, four Australians - Greg Martin, Tuynman, Lynagh and Farr-Jones - would finish the match with a total of 25 stitches between them, nothing unusual in that of course in rugby, but the Lions aggressive approach was widely admonished throughout the match and after it, especially in Australia. It was evident that be it a winning or losing Lions team, the tourists could not please everyone, but the ends certainly justified the means come the final whistle.
In amongst the battle, a game of rugby did occasionally break out. Again it would be Australia who would score the first try, Michael Lynagh once more instrumental in setting up Martin for his second try in a week. A Rob Andrew drop goal at the end of the first half reduced Australia's advantage to 9-6, crucially putting the Lions within touching distance, and when the two exchanged penalties at the start of the second period, the match looked set for a tense finale. And then to another turning point of the match and the tour; Lynagh's unexpected penalty miss from 32-metres - his effort rebounding off the upright - kept the Lions just three points in arrears, setting up the grandstand finish that still does funny things to the hairs on my middle-aged neck.
The Lions continued dominance of the rucks finally paid dividends, when Brian Moore cleared the way for Calder to feed Andrew, who in turn released Scott Hastings. His pass to his older brother wasn't the greatest, but Gavin Hastings scooped up the ball, handed-off Maguire, before scoring the Lions' first international try of the tour in the 74th minute. Although the conversion was missed, the force was now with the away team, David Campese twice dropping high balls, the latter leading to the clincher, as wave upon wave of pressure thundered down on the Aussies. The final delicious moment was near.
With Calder now driving forward with growing confidence, Moore again featured, this time acting as scrum-half spinning a pass to Andrew, who then found the debutant Guscott. In a heartbeat, the 24-year-old put through a grubber kick, racing on to the ball himself to put the icing on the cake, and to bury a week of agony and angst for the visitors. Andrew's conversion completed a quite remarkable 19-12 victory for the Lions, such a dramatic turnaround from the events of the Saturday before, so unexpected, that even to this day it seems barely believable.
There were many fine performances which enabled the Lions to square the series, yet most reports agreed that the return of Dooley - which negated Cutler's dominance that he had enjoyed in the first Test - and Teague's influence were key. Still not fully fit from his shoulder strain, the flanker admitted that he played through the pain barrier in order to help the cause, and along with the rest of the pack he ensured that the Australians knew they were a much different beast from the weekend before. As the match progressed, the momentum of both the Lions and Calder grew exponentially, the skipper's stature expanding as the Lions drove on in search of a reward for their determined display.
Whereas Calder's demeanour the week before had been one of an emotional and distraught individual, the Test win at Brisbane saw a relieved man, fully content with the outcome of the match. But Calder and the coaching staff probably knew what was coming their way after the win, as journalists questioned the Lions forceful methods.
When grilled regarding the over-physicality of the Lions' game plan, coach McGeechan was adamant that the line had not been crossed between aggression and violence: "When players are motivated in that way, you have occasions when players will react. I don't think there was anything vicious in it." Calder also defended the tactics, again using the commitment word in his after match interviews: "We got stuck in. Commitment is everything. It's a contact sport first and last. If you are committed, you win the ball. If you stand off, you're lost." In the week leading up to the deciding Test, McGeechan and Calder would constantly face interrogation with regards to the Battle of Ballymore, but the pair remained strong, taking any flak that came their way, ensuring a siege mentality enveloped the squad.
The Australian press cried foul - "once you get the Aussie press whinging and whining, for me you know you've got them," stated Gavin Hastings on Sky's recent 1989 And All That programme - but to be fair even the British media seemed concerned about the actions of certain Lions players. Australia's hooker, Tom Lawton, brandished some of the opposition a bunch of "headkickers" in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, adding "A couple of them seem to think Test match football is about hitting people rather than playing the game", yet skipper Farr-Jones was a lot less damning: "We've all played Tests before and we expected. It wasn't overdone."
Speaking recently, Farr-Jones' opinion remains the same, although he did express disappointment at not going toe-to-toe with the Lions and matching fire with fire. Prop Dan Crowley also admitted that perhaps the Australians were slightly taken aback by the ferocity of the Lions, so in that regard, and in terms of the scoreboard, the strategy had worked.
The Lions management would reprimand Young for his actions a few days later, but for now the squad took a well earned break in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast, in preparation for the deciding Test in Sydney. "Bloodbath! Lions set for final showdown" announced the Daily Express, predicting more of the same on the following Saturday. The winner takes all clash would be equally as dramatic, a moment of madness ultimately deciding the series, and earning the 1989 Lions squad their place in history. None of this would have been possible though without the Battle of Ballymore, and regardless of whether you condone or condemn the events of that second Test, the zero to hero comeback at Brisbane made for compulsive sporting theatre.