Max Duthie, a partner in Bird & Bird's sports group, is the legal officer to the British and Irish Lions and has been travelling with the tour party on its historic tour to Hong Kong and Australia for six weeks. He has been writing a tour diary, exclusively for Legal Week. This is his fifth and final instalment.
Melbourne, ahead of the second test. My wife, Ali, arrived a day or so before the match, which meant a few hours for me away from the testosterone-fuelled tour party, and a chance to catch up with her, see some old mates and visit some of our favourite places in Melbourne. We had dinner at Bluecorn in St Kilda, and Sails on the Bay in Elwood (both worth a visit), and it was lovely to be out of the tour bubble for a little while, talking about normal stuff.
And it was not just me who my wife's presence affected. One of the players chatted up Ali one night as she took the hotel lift, alone, back to our room, him not knowing that she was my wife (I will save his blushes by not naming him, but he is one of the tour superstars). He was mortified when he found out who she was, and spent the next few days apologising to me and her (and worrying about the response from the fines committee). She, on the other hand, was delighted, convinced now that she has still 'got it' (she hasn't).
It was soon back to business (rather than monkey business) for the players. The tension in the team room as match day approached was quite palpable. Before the playing squad left the hotel for the Etihad Stadium, tour manager, Andy Irvine, reminded them that they had an opportunity to make history, and head coach, Warren Gatland, told each and every player that they could achieve anything if they stuck at it and wanted it badly enough. It was stirring stuff (and I assumed that he had been referring just to rugby and not, say, chatting up women).
The stadium in Melbourne was fantastic. Roof down, every seat filled, bags of atmosphere. It was another brutal encounter, with each breakdown contested with massive physicality (albeit, by and large, within the laws of the game). At one stage, in an extraordinary passage of play, Lions winger, George North, was tackled by his opposite number, Israel Folau, arguably the two stars of the first test and two of the most exciting players in world rugby at the moment. George stooped slightly as he entered the tackle, which meant that Folau ended up folded over George's back. No matter, George just worked those ridiculous quadriceps of his and squatted Folau up, like a fireman's lift, and continued to run forward with the ball while carrying Folau across his shoulders. The crowd went wild. I had to review the analysts' footage a few times to be sure that there was no foul play involved. I was eventually satisfied that it was entirely legitimate play from each of them but the truth was that I had never seen anything like it.
The Lions led for much of the match, but conceded a try close to the end and the conversion put the Wallabies a point in front. In the last play of the match, the Lions were awarded a penalty on the halfway line, about 55 metres out, and the stadium was silent as the Lions fullback, Leigh Halfpenny, stepped up to kick it. Leigh is almost certainly the hardest-working player in the squad: he stays on after most training sessions to do another hour or so kicking practice, and genuinely hardly ever misses. But this time he didn't connect as sweetly as he normally does, and the kick fell short. 16-15 to the Wallabies. The match lost. The series tied. The bubble burst.
The following day, the tour party headed to Noosa, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast. It was a good environment for the players to unwind, lick their wounds, and take their minds off rugby for a while. We all had a couple of days off and that meant people enjoying the local facilities, including jet skiing, surfing, golf and - for a few of the players - a little light boozing. In fairness, though, nobody seemed to go mad.
A few of us took one of the sponsored Land Rovers up to Fraser Island, a large sand island about a hundred miles north of Noosa. We drove along the beach to get there (a couple of hours) and then buzzed round the island's sand tracks and wide beaches before stopping to throw some steak on a barbecue. It was great fun but disaster nearly struck when we tried to head home along the same side of the island we had driven up but found the advancing tide was blocking our return along the beach. We had to decide quickly whether to chance it along the beach and play chicken with the waves, or do a u-ey (is that how you write it?) and have a frantic drive back across 10 miles of sand tracks to try to catch the last ferry back to the mainland from a different ferry port. We went for the latter and gave the Landy a proper hammering, but made it to the port with four minutes to spare. Calamity averted, but the high-fiving did not last too long as within a few minutes of arriving back on the mainland we had a high-speed puncture which saw us skid off the road and then spend an hour trying to change the wheel (it was like an episode of The Apprentice: too many alpha males trying to boss the operation with none of us really knowing what to do).
On arrival back in Noosa, we learned that the IRB's appeal in the case of Wallabies captain, James Horwill, had not been upheld and that he remained free to play to play in the third test. It was not an entirely surprising result but in any event it had no effect on the mood in camp. I think it fair to say that the tour party had moved on long before the IRB had decided to appeal and that, no matter how significant a player Horwill is for the Wallabies, the result of the appeal was not going to influence match preparation for the Lions.
Back to Sydney on the Thursday before the final test. The city was awash with Lions fans and there was a real air of expectation. One last training session at North Sydney Oval and before we knew it match day was upon us. The big story in the last few days had been about Lions team selection. Warren Gatland and the other coaches had made a number of changes from the team that played the second test, with the omission of Lions veteran and crowd favourite, Brian O'Driscoll, being the most talked-about. Gatland is certainly ballsy: it would have been easy to pick the same or a similar team to that which played in the second test, but Gatland was prepared to take some risks in order to try to win the match and the series, knowing that it would mean some short term pain for himself and some of the dropped players. It meant a difficult week for Brian: he has been one of the world's best players for a decade or more, and personifies the spirit of the Lions, but he had here gone from being in the starting XV for the first two tests to not even on the bench for the third. However, he is a real gent and took the decision with maturity and honesty, openly acknowledging that he was bitterly disappointed, but determined to get behind the team for the final match.
Meanwhile, back at home, my three kids had been starting to miss me a lot more now that mum was away too. A few tearful Skype sessions had reminded me just how much I was missing them as well. Still, not too long to go now.
One quasi-legal issue arose in the run-up to the third test match. The Lions had won the first test by two points; the Wallabies the second test by one: what would happen in the event of a draw in the third? Would the series be tied, or would the Lions win the series on points difference? It is the type of thing that ought to have been addressed well ahead of the tour (probably by me) but it hadn't been. Of course, everyone had an opinion on what the right answer should be, but I tried to ignore those and focus on what the relevant contracts, regulations and laws of the game dictated. In the end we concluded, and agreed with the Australian Rugby Union, that the correct result in those circumstances would be a tied series, and we then set out about developing a protocol for trophy presentation and other post-match activity in the event of a draw.
I headed to Sydney's ANZ Stadium a couple of hours before kick off. I had not been back there since attending the Rugby World Cup final in 2003, and now, as then, the atmosphere was incredible. I sat with tour captain, Sam Warburton, on the journey in. This was a tough day for him too, as injury in the second test meant he was not available for this series decider. But he remained upbeat and genuinely excited about what was in store. He is a really impressive individual, and he has a maturity and composure well beyond his 24 years.
There was a real buzz in the stadium. The Lions fans in their 'sea of red' were in good voice, singing traditional rugby songs from Britain and Ireland, fuelled on mass-produced fizzy beer from Australia. As I sit back now and try to recall it, the match seems to have flown by in a bit of a blur. The Lions scored early and dominated the first half, only to concede a try and a penalty either side of half time, and then another penalty soon after, so that the momentum seemed to swing to the Wallabies. But then in a quite mesmerising spell of dramatic, direct and hugely entertaining rugby, the Lions' backs ran in three great tries and the match, and series, was won. Cue bedlam.
It was amazing, not to mention rather surreal, to witness and be part of the celebrations that followed. The players were understandably elated: it had been an emphatic and historic victory. The whole tour party were on the pitch for half an hour or so after the match, singing along with the thousands of Lions fans that had stayed in the stadium. Then back into the dressing room where the champagne and beers flowed, and one or two guests came in to wish the lads well, including rugby fan, Daniel Craig.
It was on the way back to the official reception at the Sydney Opera House that the citing commissioner confirmed to me by text that there would be no disciplinary action taken against any players following the match. That was great news for me as he had been looking at a couple of incidents that, if they had been the subject of a citing, would have meant me heading back to the hotel to prepare for a hearing the following day. As it was, I was in the clear again.
After the Opera House, the tour party headed into central Sydney and got stuck in. It was a cracking night, with the players and management all letting their hair down after a long six weeks of touring. I started to flag around 4.30am but kicking coach, Neil Jenkins, cornered me and commanded me to stop being soft and (this is a direct quote) 'get some more lager down your pelican'. I obeyed orders and made it to 6.30am after a few more beers back at the team hotel, but then called it quits. At that stage, player-of-the-series, Leigh Halfpenny, was leading a conga (surely the most futile and irritating dance of all) around the team room; Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney and Owen Farrell were doing some impromptu DJing; and a dozen or more of the other players were preparing themselves to bat on through to the following day. It had been a memorable night, albeit one that I cannot entirely recollect.
The next few days were spent relaxing, packing and catching up with members of the tour party as well as other colleagues and mates. It had been an intense build-up to a climactic test series, and all were keen to let off a bit of steam. And then, seemingly quite suddenly, Tuesday came and it was home-time. We boarded our flights back to London, and I tried to come to terms with what I had experienced over the last few weeks, and how I was going to re-engage with my normal life. I am writing this now on Qantas flight QF009 to Heathrow, reflecting on what has passed and what is ahead. No more printed day sheets plotting my hourly schedules and dress codes, no more five-star hotel meals (certainly not at my house), no more 24-hour laundry service, no more wake-up calls, and no more daily fraternising with some of the world's best rugby players, coaches and management. As with all tours, I will miss it terribly, but I will certainly be glad to be home.
Source: Legal Week
Read the previous instalments of the Lions Tour Diary here.