1989: The Year The Lions Truly Roared
When the British and Irish Lions toured Australia in 1989, Northern Hemisphere Rugby was very much in the shadow of its southern counterpart. The All Blacks had won union’s first version of the World Cup in 1987 and four years later in England, Australia would make it a double for countries either side of the Tasman.
It was against this backdrop that the 1989 Lions team, coached by Ian McGeechan and captained by Finlay Calder, travelled Down Under and needless to say, they were given little chance of returning home with a series victory.
For the next Lions tour to South Africa in 2021, Paddy Power currently have the tourists as favourites to win the series at 4/6 in their rugby union betting markets and that’s due, in part, to the legacy of the 1989 squad. British rugby has been peaking since that tour but, McGeechan’s men arrived in Australia as rank outsiders.
Man-for-man, Australia simply seemed a much stronger unit and the comparative strengths of rugby in the two hemispheres made the home side clear favourites to take the series. It’s an overall view that seemed to hold up when the Wallabies romped home in the opening test.
Unlike the touring Lions of 2017, the 1989 version began their warm-ups in emphatic fashion and McGeechan’s men would have had some confidence going into the first test, having won six games in a row. That confidence may have evaporated for some of the squad however as the Wallabies ran out 30-12 winners in Sydney.
At the time, it was the team’s biggest ever defeat in Australia and it meant that in order to win the series, they would need to become the first ever Lions side to come back from 1-0 down. It all looked very bleak, therefore, as the squad prepared for the second game in Brisbane.
In a bruising encounter, the enduring image is that of Guscott, making his Lions debut and following through a grubber kick to score under the posts. Andrew’s conversion made it a 19-12 victory and suddenly it was back to Sydney with all to play for.
Australia were still expected to clinch the series, despite that loss in Brisbane, even if the tourists were unlikely to capitulate as they had in the first test. In the decider, another physical opening resulted in Gavin Hastings kicking two penalties to give the Lions a six-point lead before an exchange of three-pointers saw the visitors head towards the 40-minute mark with a 9-3 advantage. But just before the break, Michael Lynagh set up Ian Williams for a brilliant converted try to make it 9-9 at halftime.
After the break, Australia went into the lead for the first time but at 9-12 behind and just ten minutes left, a crazy ending saw Ieuan Evans land the Lions’ first try before indiscipline handed the tourists the advantage again at 19-12.
Two Lynagh penalties pulled Australia agonisingly close but the Lions held on for a victory that at 19-18, made history even if it was a little too close for comfort.
The numbers alone tend to mask the enormity of this series win. The British and Irish Lions started the tour by setting an unwanted record in defeat before becoming the first of their kind to come from 1-0 down and secure victory.
It was very much a turning point for Home Nations rugby and never again would a Lions side roll over in the face of Southern Hemisphere opposition.