FINALLY THE 2017 BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS TOUR TO NEW ZEALAND IS UP AND RUNNING, AND CERTAINLY AFTER A LACKLUSTRE PERFORMANCE AGAINST THE (BIG BREATH) NEW ZEALAND PROVINCIAL BARBARIANS IN WHANGAREI, UP IS THE ONLY WAY TO GO.
Jingoism aside, it was a performance only a mother could love. The Lions were disjointed, leaden-footed, ugly, error-prone, sluggish, tactically naïve (strangely so given the number of battle-hardened officers on the pitch) one-dimensional and breathtakingly unimpressive; an opening night amid the fireworks and the razzamatazz in which, as Gregor Paul put it in the ‘New Zealand Herald’, the Lions plumbed an ‘unimaginable level of mediocrity’. So, all in all, then, just about the perfect start.
Why? Because, as my sainted Aunt Maud would say – invariably as she cast a withering eye over the somewhat less sainted Uncle Malcolm – a bad example can often serve just as well as a good one. And from the Lions perspective, getting sluiced by a bucket of ice cold water and slapped round the face with a wet halibut in their first hit-out could yet prove to be the making of this tour. Believe me, however many times you hear the sages of yesteryear telling you how tough a ticket New Zealand is, it’s not until you get run over by a fruit picker the Highlanders didn’t want that the wisdom sinks in.
So, at the risk of sounding a bit Alistair Campbell, let’s not forget that the Lions won, they didn’t pick up any tour-ending sprains or strains, they didn’t give the Citing Commissioner anything to frown about, they have a mountain of match footage to go to school on and they’ll come across referee Angus Gardiner only once more this series. (Was anybody onside at any point in that match? If they were, I must have missed it.)
More positively for those doomvendors, misanthropes and crepehangers who thought the Test Series ended as a contest when Billy Vunipola’s shoulder got the better of him, the mighty Taulupe Faletau had a game for the ages; his first-half try-stopping, crocodile-style, wrap-and-roll was – arguably – the best of its kind you’ll ever see given he had no right to get to the tackle, let alone hold up the ball over the line. Zinzan Brooke – of course – reckons Faletau doesn’t have enough ‘mongrel’ in him, hardly surprising given what a pedigree animal he is.
The other Lion Zinny had his reservations about the other day in his ‘www.allblacks.com’ column was tight head, Kyle Sinckler, known to Eddie Jones as ‘Kitchen’ and to the Lions as ‘The Sponge’. This is a man who learns Lions’ monologues by rote – ‘ this is yerr Everrrest, boys … ‘ he can do the whole speech – and who – eight years ago – wept in his mother’s kitchen when the Lions lost the series in South Africa. Not altogether astonishing then that few have looked quite so well-suited to their august surroundings than Kyle Sinckler in a red shirt in Whangarei.
The other – colossal – positive from the game was Ben Te’o. As with Sinckler, Eddie Jones has been far too cautious in giving him the game time he’s deserved with England, but in Whangarei, you watched Te’o play and you saw, as William once said, ‘the future in the instant.’ Yes, Robbie Henshaw will have his say – and hopefully from a Lions perspective he’ll go even better – but Te’o looks like a twelve you could build a backline around; rock solid in defence, hugely physical, a straight, inside-shoulder boulder yet with a dancer’s feet, a pianist’s hands and an ability to offload under pressure that’ll frighten the pants off the Kiwis if enough Lions can run the right lines off him. Which New Zealand journalist, you wonder, will be first to sneer that the Lions’ best player was born in Auckland? Yes, well, keep that one to yourself.
So amid all the debris of the first game, the Lions looked to have solved the Billy problem, found an unheralded, dynamic, game-breaking tight head and – in Te’o – come up with an emphatic answer to the biggest problem position in the Test team. Not bad for starters. Yes, one or two had games they won’t be filing in their scrapbooks – Jonny Sexton, Ian Henderson and Stuart Hogg, bless them all – but there’s time for them to rediscover their mojo. The Lions will certainly need to reboot Jonny Sexton because irrespective of whether he or Farrell starts at ten in the Tests, he’s going to be crucial to the tour.
But the crap opening night in Whangarei – I started the game on the edge of my beanbag with a big bowl of Raisin Wheats and finished it hiding behind the coffee table with my fingers in my ears – shouldn’t worry anyone. The guys are still introducing themselves to each other, they had no reconnaissance on the opposition who were eyeballs out on adrenalin and the jetlag will be eating them alive. Whenever you head to Middle Earth it takes at least a week to start eating your meals in the right order.
Mind you, if the second night – the Blues at Eden Park on Wednesday – is as crap as the first, indeed if the performance isn’t at least fifty per cent better, then it’ll be time to start reaching for the worry beads. Because a Lions Tour stands or falls by two things; who gets injured and, more importantly, how quickly the team adapts and adjusts to its environment. Indeed, the learning curve isn’t so much a curve as a vertiginous cliff and climbing it is always a race against time. If the Lions can learn their lessons, improve quickly – not least at the breakdown – get their selections spot on and – if possible – try to keep winning, then they’ll be in a good place. Or at least, in as good a place as they can be.
And of course the other huge advantage of playing like turkeys first up is the false hope it gives the opposition. New Zealand – how can one put this delicately – is a country, ball in hand, that’s never suffered from a lack of self-confidence in its own sense of superiority and, given how indelible first impressions are, the Lions will now be write-offs for the First Test. Indeed – whatever they do in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Rotorua and Hamilton in the next three weeks – they’ll be under the radar psychologically and if they’re going to spring a surprise on the All Blacks, that’s no bad place to be.
Winning this series is still a ludicrous ask but the dismal start is hugely encouraging. Imagine how disastrous it’d have been if the bookies had been right and the Lions had won by forty only to strut down to the South Island next week and get bushwhacked by the Crusaders. They’d have wasted a priceless week feeling cute about themselves. As it is, they’re on the ‘qui vivre’ immediately; engaged, alert and fully seized of the task ahead. 7-13? Frankly, they couldn’t have wished for a better beginning.
03 JUNE 2017