Winning the pride-restoring final Test against South Africa on Saturday was vital for the future of the British & Irish Lions, according to former Lion Gregor Townsend. The 28-9 rout of the Springboks in Johannesburg may not have affected the outcome of the series but it did much to promote the mystique of the unique series. "The win was vital," said Townsend, the former Lions fly-half and Scotland international who hosted a live screening of the series finale at Crowne Plaza.
"The Lions must win games to be taken seriously and it was great to see them do that and play great rugby." In fact Townsend rated the Lions' herculean effort on Saturday as one of the best international performances he has ever seen. "It was right up there," he said. "That puts them alongside the All Blacks at their best and it may also be the best rugby performance we will see for the next four years until the next Lions tour."
The Lions lost by painfully narrow margins in both the first two Tests, coming within a single score of an incredible comeback when 19 points behind the Springboks in the first before succumbing to the hosts 26-21 in Durban. They suffered further heartbreak in Pretoria when a last-minute penalty from Morne Steyn deprived Ian McGeechan's men of a draw and the chance to fight for the series. With passions running high after the huge controversy surrounding Schalk Burger's gratuitous gouging incident in the second Test, the Lions went into the dead rubber with all guns blazing.
But Townsend said the visitors should be commended for the exhilarating rugby they have played in all three Tests and not just when their pride was on the line. "The fact is it has been great rugby all along," he said. "They had a lot to play for on Saturday but they had been unlucky and paid a very high price for some mistakes." Townsend had particular praise for Phil Vickery, returning to the side after being taken off for Adam Jones following a disappointing showing during the first Test, and suggested he may have been a stronger contender for man of the match than double try-scorer Shane Williams.
"There were a lot of stand-out peformances," he said. "Shane was superb as were Riki Flutey and Rob Kearney. "But you can't underestimate the impact of Phil on the team. He and Simon Shaw are the oldest and most experienced players and Phil's presence was vitally important. "Phil would have been very happy to be back on the pitch and the way he played, after being under par for the first Test, should have made him a man-of-the-match consideration."