The British & Irish Lions will travel to South Africa in 2021 to face off against the world champions in three highly-anticipated Tests.
The sides have not met since 2009 when Ian McGeechan’s side fell to a 2-1 series defeat in a tour that contained plenty of controversial moments.
Paul O’Connell captained the Lions that year. But it was another Munster man who faced the brunt of the blame for losing the series in the second Test.
Ronan O’Gara was vilified after the 28-25 loss for a series of events which led to a last-minute penalty for South Africa. Had he kicked the ball out of play, the game would have ended in a draw and a drawn series would be the best-case scenario for the Lions.
However, as he explained in his 2013 autobiography ‘Unguarded: My Life In Rugby‘, a draw was never an option for O’Gara, not when there was still a chance of winning the series.
“The Lions were one down in the series and the scores were level with less than a minute to go in that second Test at Loftus Versfeld. Stephen Jones had just made it 25-25 when I ran back to retrieve the ball inside our own 22, with most of my team-mates in front of me. I ran outside our 22 and launched an up-and-under to the middle of the pitch in order to contest the ball and maybe give us one more shot at winning the match.
“The alternative was to kick to touch and sacrifice any chance of victory and maybe hand them one last chance from a lineout around halfway.
“Many people have argued that a drawn series is better than a lost one – which is what happened because I ran into Fourie du Preex as he caught the ball and conceded that fateful penalty. Morne Steyn duly won the match and clinched a series win with the last kick of the game, a penalty from inside his own half.
“But I wouldn’t change my decision”.
O’Gara revealed that not starting the first Test had been “painful” and argued that after Ireland’s Grand Slam success, he would have been chosen if there were more Irish coaches with the Lions that year.
Given that the side had fallen to a five-point loss in the opening clash against the Springboks, O’Gara thought he might be selected to start for the second game. However, he was once again named on the bench and was introduced in place of Jamie Roberts with 12 minutes remaining.
“I had a massive shiner after bring busted by Pierre Spies, and then missed a tackle on Jacque Fourie for the try which briefly put them in front. To this day I still have no feeling where I had that black eye. It’s killed all the nerves in that area.”
Before kicking that infamous up-and-under, the Munster man had signalled to his Ireland teammate Tommy Bowe to prepare for the chase. However, the winger misinterpreted and ran towards the left of the pitch.
“I’ve seen his comments on that moment since and he admitted he didn’t do me any favours. If I had enough time to get under the kick, then certainly Tommy had enough time to do so as well. If we’d won that ball, we were on the front foot.”
O’Gara explained his reasoning behind his decision. Had “one of the best aerial wingers” won the ball, the Cork native backed himself to be able to land a match-winning drop goal. As he admitted, he wasn’t a stepper, and couldn’t beat people from deep, but he had an accurate kicking game and chose to rely on that.
“There was actually a bit of logic to what I was trying to do, even if what transpired was horrific. But that’s sport.
“What disappoints me most, to this day, us that Paulie [Paul O’Connell] was captain and I think he was scapegoated for the whole tour by some of the English media. He was popular within the squad and it would have been a really special moment in both our careers if I had landed a drop goal at the other end and the following week he could have been captain for a Lions series win.”
Although the result, and the inevitable reaction, was a “horrible experience” for O’Gara, had he an opportunity to relive that game, he would make the same choices. Taking an easier way out is not an option for him.
“Many people still maintain – I’ve read plenty of comments about it since – that I would have been better off kicking the ball out of play and settling for a draw. But that genuinely never came into my head.
“Now of course, I can understand such a viewpoint. Draw the second Test, win the last Test, and secure a drawn series. But I’ve had a winner-takes-all attitude throughout my career and I wouldn’t change that”.
O’Gara maintained that one decision does not cost a team a game. Instead, he praised Morne Steyn for landing the last-minute pressure kick from distance in his second-ever Test.
Yet he understood why the coaches were “disgusted”. Although he had to deal with some harsh criticism, he tried to learn from the experience and move on.
“There was inevitably a huge reaction, some of which was particularly disappointing. A few former players were quite severe in saying that I’d never play a game for the Lions again.
“I remember being tipped off about an article in the papers the next day by Jeremy Guscott. ‘O’Gara missed a tackle on Jacques Fourie and then gave away the penalty at the end. He is going to be hanging his head in shame in the dressing room. These guys gave absolutely everything and must have been on top of the world at half-time.’
“Guscott wasn’t alone in thinking it had all been my fault and I should have my head in shame.
“Like everything in life, you deal with it head-on, try and learns as much as you can from it and move on.”