• Lions tour tales from Ugo Monye

    In the latest SA Rugby magazine, former British & Irish Lions back Ugo Monye chatted to DANIEL GALLAN about the iconic tour of South Africa in 2009.

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    Eight seconds separated Ugo Monye from redemption. With the British & Irish Lions 15-6 ahead 53 minutes into the final Test of the 2009 tour of South Africa, the England and Harlequins wing seized his moment.

    Inside the Lions’ 22, Wynand Olivier threw a speculative pass that hung in Johannesburg air for just enough time to encourage Monye to make the intercept. Already moving forward as per defence coach Shaun Edwards’ instruction, the then 26-year-old plucked the spiralling ball at shoulder height and ran 80m for a try dripping in meaning.

    ‘I believe in heaven and I believe in hell, and I experienced both on that tour,’ Monye tells SA Rugby magazine from his London home.

    Two weeks before he stood on the pitch at Kings Park Stadium in Durban before the first Test. The sound of the South African national anthem reverberated around the packed arena.

    ‘I remember thinking at the time, “This is the proudest moment of my life”,’ Monye recalls. ‘We were playing against the best South African team there has ever been. The World Cup champions, the Tri-Nations champions. My competition in the team was Shane Williams, a guy who won World Player of the Year the year before. It’s incredible how your emotions can change in 80 minutes.’

    It’s fair to say that Monye had a day to forget. Not that he ever will erase the haunting memories of costing his team a victory. Two fumbles within touching distance of the Springbok tryline— inside the first and last 10 minutes of the game respectively — proved decisive as the tourists fell on the wrong side of the 26-21 scoreline.

    ‘That first one still hurts 12 years later,’ Monye says, describing the moment a Jean de Villiers tackle wrenched the ball from his grasp. ‘Even by the laws back then it was 100% a penalty try. It was a high tackle. The referees were so focused on the grounding that they forgot about everything else.’

    If he has any qualms about that particular transgression he can have none for his second. Having stepped past Jaque Fourie inside the left touchline, Monye had the tryline at his mercy only for Morne Steyn to force the knock-on. 

    Monye was pilloried by an unforgiving press and dropped for the second Test; not even given a seat on the bench in Pretoria. As fate would have it, that second Test and the series would be decided by an all-time great try from Fourie and a nerveless penalty from a different time zone off Steyn’s right boot.

    ‘I experienced every emotion you can have in a rugby career over those seven weeks,’ says Money.

    Heartache. Despair. Hope. Ecstasy. Absolution. It may have been mere consolation, but in beating Jongi Nokwe in a foot race and sliding under the posts at the southern end of South Africa’s most famous rugby stadium, Monye signed off as the Lions’ leading try-scorer to complement the four he’d bagged in mid-week games.

    ‘The first thing I noticed, looking up at the stand, was that it felt like a home match,’ Monye said, describing the famous ocean of red shirts that is now a feature whenever the Lions travel to the southern hemisphere. ‘It was important to give them something. People save for years for those moments. It was a try and a [28-9] win for our supporters. I was thrilled to be a part of it. It was the greatest moment in my rugby career.’

    This year’s tour is in doubt. Though multiple Covid-19 vaccines have allowed a glimmer of light to appear at the end of a long dark tunnel, the first Test’s scheduled kick-off date of 24 July might come too soon. For Monye, any other alternative would constitute a poor compromise.

    ‘South Africa is the best place to tour, it’s unlike anywhere else,’ he says. ‘Even guys like Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll who won in Australia in 2003 have told me that. There’s always symbolism in South Africa. There is always a collision course with history that builds to this crescendo where it’s so much more than just a game. Rugby in South Africa is way more than just a game.’

    Monye struggles to find high enough praise for Chasing The Sun, the docuseries chronicling the Springboks’ road to Rugby World Cup glory in 2019. That is not a turn of phrase. ‘Oh my gosh’ and ‘Oh my word’ is about all he can muster.

    ‘Talk about the power of sport,’ he says after rediscovering his groove that has made him one of the most insightful rugby pundits on TV and radio. ‘After England won their semi-final against New Zealand I was blinded by their success. It was one of the greatest performances England have ever produced. Had I watched that documentary before the final, I mean, it’s hard to think England had a chance after watching that.’

    This feeling was enhanced after a conversation with Siya Kolisi shortly after that famous night in Yokohama. The Springbok skipper was in England’s North-West watching his beloved Liverpool at Anfield Stadium and was spending a night at the same hotel as Monye. After a few beers the stories exchanged became more personal in nature as Kolisi opened up about his unique journey.

    ‘I don’t think anyone outside South Africa could appreciate it or fully come to grips with it,’ Monye muses. ‘We’ve not lived that life. We haven’t been exposed to it. I believe that any of the top five teams can beat each other. But when you can engender and focus upon a higher purpose, you can achieve some remarkable things.’

    Monye believes this year’s tour, wherever it takes place, will be filled with narratives that stretch beyond the boundary:

    ‘Maro Itoje could captain the Lions and with Siya there’d be two black captains going together. Then we’d be coming out of the pandemic that has lasted 18 months. It’ll be against the World Champions. It could be the greatest Lions series ever.’

    South African James Bond

    Monye shares a story from a night out in Johannesburg.

    ‘It was after a mid-week game and we all went to a nightclub. We arrived in two 60-seat busses with ‘Lions’ printed all over them. It was not subtle at all. We were well-oiled by this point but we were let in ahead of this long queue of people. We’d been shopping earlier in the day and I picked up a little laser pointer. I was standing on this mezzanine looking down at the dance floor. I was pointing my laser at the boys, seeing what everyone was up to. Out of nowhere I was cut in half by this huge tackle. I was on the floor and this guy grabbed my wrist to check my hand.

    He said, “Mate, you’re in South Africa. Guns have laser sights on them”. I thought it was harmless. Turns out this guy was an undercover special forces bodyguard who’d been with us at every training session, every meal, every night out. I’d not noticed him before. He was under the radar. I wished I’d found out about him in a more passive way. He was like a real-life character from Call of Duty. A South African James Bond.’

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    Craig Lewis