lions tour diary #five

IS WARREN GATLAND DOWN TO ‘A CHIP AND A CHAIR’; WHITHER A MIDFIELD OF ‘JONNY FARRELL’; A MOUNTAIN-TOP RENDEZVOUS WITH OGHENEMARO MILES ITOJE; THIRSTY LIONS; UNDY FURRILL AND – REGRETFULLY – WELLINGTON’S LAST GREAT STEAK OUT.

WELLINGTON – THURSDAY 29 JUNE 2017

If you can’t get to sleep, it means you’re awake in someone else’s dream; what you give on a Friday you’ll never get back; a ring around a winter-moon always means snow and a Lions’ Test team announcement delayed by five hours means it’s going to be one of Warren’s wilder ones. And so it proved.

I confess, I have absolutely no idea why Gatland picked this particular team for the ‘shit or bust’ Second Test; not because I’m flummoxed but because I was at the back of the room when he announced it and I couldn’t hear a blind word he was saying. You’d have thought a Lions organisation that, in the words of one Kiwi, ‘practically defecates money’ might’ve been able to run to either a PA system or a town crier but clearly not, which was why anyone more than six rows back was lip-reading.

Still who needs Gatland’s view on Gatland when we’ve got everyone else’s? Most think he’s gambling, some think he’s fishing and several think he’s away with the fairies. But if you work on Einstein’s assumption that stupidity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result, then at least Gatland’s not stupid. Then again, with Warren you’re often left wondering which part of the team he selects with his brain and which with his balls.

Certainly the ‘chip and a chair’ merchants – he’s still at the table but he’s only got one play left – have plenty to chew on here. When, please, was the last time Warren played Warrenball with two playmakers? Indeed how exactly do you play ‘Warrenball’ with two playmakers? Gatland – so it’s said – does bash, front-foot and round the corner; the very stuff that didn’t work last week which is why – ipso facto – he’s got no other call to make this week. The naughty Mark Reason at stuff.co.nz even wondered whether Gatland’s cunning plan ‘is like a personal ad in the lonely hearts column sent out to New Zealand Rugby. ‘Coach looking for home comforts and a soul-mate; love me, I’m not one-dimensional, I want to come home.’ By a mile, Reason’s the only reason to read anything the media here writes.

Clearly this isn’t a team picked on form given half the side had stinkers in the First Test. It’s not picked on combinations either given second row, back row and the five-eighths haven’t played together on tour or anywhere else. But not running Itoje in the First Test was a poor call. Hansen, in comparison, had the nuts to go with a youthful Reiko Ioane ahead of Julian Savea and it paid off in spades. Gatland missed the boat with Maro last week and his inclusion this week was only slightly less certain than death and taxes.

Elsewhere, Jones is clearly an educated hunch on a man Gatland knows and trusts but who appears to be making little of his usual impact; someone has to do something sharpish at the breakdown, hence Sam Warburton, while Jonny Farrell in midfield offers myriad possibilities with the ball but – potentially – some lumpy problems without it. Williams, Naholo et al will not be needing anyone to draw them a diagram of where to run and that particular selection is six of one and half dozen of the other, your call.

It seems to me that little incidents in matches often stick in coaches’ minds and from those small moments larger theories are cloned. Reading between Gatland’s lines these past few days you feel that – apart from his front five learning that the meek will never inherit Middle Earth – nothing has nagged away at him quite so much as Ben Teo’s inability to find the killer pass when opportunity knocked in the second half. Finding the space is the whole ball game down here and the Lions Head Coach senses – or at least you sense he senses – that there’s fresh air to be found behind an All Black back division who’re much better in fifth gear than they are in reverse. Look, Sexton and Farrell’s not a bonkers selection, it’s a brave one but if it goes pear-shaped, the Lions will get badly burned.

We had a date up a mountain with Maro Itoje this afternoon – a three hundred and sixty degree view around Wellington from the top of Mount Victoria in thumping sunshine, although a bugger of a location for K-dog given the only options appeared to be Maro squinting into the sun or Maro silhouetted by the sun. Matching the prevailing weather to the jaw-dropping view isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds but this is why K-dog is a living genius.

Maro Itoje is actually a six foot five inch abbreviation. At his full height, his name is Oghenemaro Miles Itoje, Oghenemaro meaning ‘God is the Greatest’, although they’d be a few Saracens supporters who might disagree. Itoje’s fascinating, the eye in the centre of his own storm; utterly unperturbed that he seems to be becoming one of the icons of this Tour and eternally unruffled by all the fuss. ‘I think my Dad enjoys my rugby more than I do,’ he said. ‘In fact when I retire, I think he’s going to struggle more than me.’

I’ve never heard a twenty-two-year-old rugby player with as much of the world at his feet as Maro Itoje even think of a word like retirement, let lone mention it. But this is a young man with a wider perspective, to the extent that you idly wonder whether – one day – there’ll be much more to him than rugby. When I was seventeen, Debbie Harry was on my wall; the schoolboy Itoje – Harrow Maro – had a poster of Gandhi.

So we talked Trump – ‘I never thought someone like him would become President: he’s fairly rash but unfortunately the Americans elected him and they have to deal with him for four years‘ – and the learning curve of being a Lion. Good actors understand early that just because they’re not speaking doesn’t mean they’re not part of the play, a lesson Maro applied to the steaming frustration of being passed over for the First Test. ‘Nothing is neutral on this tour – you’re either contributing to the team or you’re taking away from the team and you don’t want to be the latter’. That’s the other thing about Maro; he uses words like ‘former’ and ‘latter’ and you can count the number of players who do that on the finger of one finger.

The panorama didn’t seem to grab him hugely, despite the fact he’d never been up Mount Victoria before with the bay all a-shimmer, the houses hanging onto the surrounding hillsides like baubles on a Christmas tree and the Olympian view of the flight path into Wellington Airport. I thought it might appeal to the poet in him but then, as that other poet Auden once said, ‘five minutes on even the nicest mountain is an awfully long time.’ And poets, as we know, are a clannish lot.

WELLINGTON – FRIDAY 30 JUNE 2017

Wellington has hired two inflatable pubs and a beer ambulance for tomorrow’s game; the clear assumption being that the Lions supporters are going to be thirsty. It’s an assumption most host cities have made about the Red Army down the years and – mostly – they’ve been right. I have to say there are times out here when I seriously wonder whether the entire Lions’ Armada is nothing more than thirty people all walking round town and queuing up for the toaster at the same time as me but I’ve come to suspect not; indeed I fancy the Cake Tin is going to look like a raspberry jelly tomorrow evening.

The Lions Squad have been narrowing the focus all day. Defense Coach Undy Furrill – ‘I’m simmering’ – was in full frown at this morning’s news conference ‘… you don’t just win the game by being raging mad; you have to be smart …’ and Sean O’Brien, another man whose car-parking space you wouldn’t want to steal, has spoken – ominously – of the need for ‘an attitude shift’. I know they’re 1/5 favourites but I’m actually starting to worry for the All Blacks.

Whatever happens tomorrow hopefully people will remember their manners. I know there are those who like all the dirty talk between the coaches but that I’m afraid that doesn’t include me. It should do, obviously, given I’m a slavering, dirt-digging hack and if the boss reads this then – obviously – I’ll claim I was taken out of context or I’ll plead pressure of work. But – truly – it’s puerile, playground stuff.

The summary so far: Gatland gets a media grilling on ‘Warrenball’ and – allegedly – f-bombs his way out of the news conference. He then suggests the step up between NZ Super Rugby and NZ Test Rugby isn’t that great. Steve ’Shag’ Hansen – don’t ask, I’ve no idea – sticks his tongue firmly in his cheek and says, ‘I just think he’s probably trying a bit of humour after struggling a wee bit with his press conference.’ Ouch.

Hansen then tells the world that Gatland’s bringing in reinforcements – ‘he didn’t pick enough to start with, I guess’ – whereupon Gatland says Hansen’s talking so much about the Lions he’s clearly ‘worried’. Shag thanks Warren for the feedback. Warren then raises the issue of All Black blocking lines under the high ball whereupon Hansen’s purports to be puzzled. ‘Do you mean the back lifter getting in front of the jumper when they’re doing a maul, or the tackler blocking the ball getting out?’ Oooh.

Gatland then raises the vexed issue of Conor Murray’s standing leg and why he’d prefer to hang on to it. On the radio, Hansen says Gatland’s ‘desperate’, Gatland, in turn, says that if he’s desperate what’s Hansen doing ringing up radio stations to complain that he – Gatland – is ‘desperate’ and Hansen says he didn’t ring them up, he was just passing. And, God preserve us, these two – by all accounts – get along very well.

All Black Coach, Ian Foster – good friends with both – has tried to calm things down and offer a little context; ‘he’s doing what he thinks he needs to do to prepare his team and we’ll do what we need to do,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot at stake. Everyone is looking for an edge. I wouldn’t read too much more into it than just that.’ How much better though, Ian, if the two of them just shut up, acted their ages and got on with it?

The wholesome James Gemmell ran K-dog up Mount Victoria this afternoon: God knows what either of them was thinking of. Jimmy G is a scholar, a gentleman and an long-distance athlete but K-Dog is a ex-centre-half for Hastings Town and no one’s idea of a Kenyan. In fairness – game boy that he is – he ran all of the flat bits and walked all of the slopey bits but, according to some exercise gizmo on his iPhone, he’d just gone up the Chrysler Building in one hit. If the finest cameraman in the Southern Hemisphere pulls up lame tomorrow, I’m billing Jimmy G for the repairs.

Given it won’t be open late tomorrow after the match, tonight was my last dine at ‘El Matador’ in Cuba Street where you can’t book, where you wait an hour for a table, where the bathrooms look and smell as though they’ve been used to keep goats BUT where the steak ‘al vacio’ with the ‘salsa criolla’ would make even my Argentinian father-in-law weep with admiration. It’s as tender as a kiss.

30 JUNE 2017

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