lions tour diary #ten




So what – we wonder – will Father Time have to say about these Lions and this tour? Quite a lot, you’d imagine. Put it this way, cast your mind back to early June and count the number of people you spoke to who reckoned the tourists would play New Zealand thrice in this Test Series and lose just the once. Precisely, And yet – almost inevitably with Warren Gatland – you end up asking yourself the same question. Is he good or was he lucky? And the answer would have to be ‘yes’.

No question, the Head Coach and his Lions got an awful lot spot on; impressively so given the brutal schedule, the pitiful lack of preparation time and the quality of the opposition. The Lions were vacuum-tight from start to finish; the work ethic was frightening and, when required, Gatland was prepared to roll the dice, most obviously in midfield. You’d be very surprised if – initially – he’d ever seriously considered Jonny Farrell to be anything other than a sixty-minute option but post the First Test, he sniffed an opportunity and bet the ranch.

But then Gatland has always been a ruthless selector. Sam Warburton was out and Peter O’Mahony in; Sam Warburton was in and Peter O’Mahony out. Most ahead of the First Test expected him to keep faith with North and Halfpenny; instead he kept his eyes open and picked Daly and Williams from the midweek side and stood by them throughout. Nowell, likewise, played his way onto the bench.

And more than that he was a fearless exploiter of the enemy’s weaknesses, devising an almost feral defensive system that flummoxed the best attacking side on the planet for long periods. Last season the All Blacks averaged five tries per test; here, five was all they could manage in three home hits against the Lions. Queenstown was always the right call in the final week; he ran a perfect decoy line in the media to protect his players after the shambles of the First Test and, throughout the tour, he held his nerve when plenty of others were wringing their hands.

What did he get wrong? Well, the Dirty Half Dozen was a fiasco, not starting with Itoje in the First Test was a copper-bottomed clanger and there’ll be a few players heading home from this tour who’ll feel they didn’t get a fair crack of the whip; Jack McGrath, for example, featured seven times and only made one start. Mind you that’s often the case on a modern Lions tour when there are so few opportunities to shine and so little time to recoup lost ground. Some end up taking one for the team.

So, all in all, Gatland got a ton of stuff right and not a lot wrong. He – clearly – understands exactly how the Lions’ machine works and you cannot underestimate the value of that experience and expertise. Structural errors on a Lions Tour are fatal – as Henry and Woodward discovered – and even when the machine runs like clockwork – South Africa, 2009 – there are no guarantees of success. Gatland was good and – certainly – you’d be hard-pressed to muster an argument that anyone else would’ve been better.

And yet he was lucky too. Indeed, where do you start? The Lions would’ve expected to get Peyper, Garces and Gardiner on the refereeing roster – the traditional South African, Frenchman and Australian for a New Zealand Tour – and somehow ended up losing Gardiner and gaining a second Frenchman in Romain Poite. Garces red-carded Williams in Wellington and pinged Faumuina for the harshest of last minute penalties; Poite binned Kaino and – inexplicably – reversed what looked like a perfectly good offside decision in the last gasp in Auckland. Each was a hugely significant decision.

Of course, whenever New Zealand loses, the referee has a shocker. The preposterous Phil Gifford in ‘The New Zealand Herald’ said Poite ‘was out of his depth and at a level beyond his abilities’ and social media generously offered its congratulations to ‘the British, Irish and French Lions’. Look, only an idiot would suggest either referee was one-eyed but there’s no denying the Lions seemed more at ease with both officials; what’s more, the breaks in both ‘French’ games seemed to be almost exclusively red ones.

Elsewhere, the Lions picked up injuries but far fewer than they’d have been anticipating and none to any of the Test Twenty-Threes; indeed an astonishing twenty-six players covered the entire series. By contrast New Zealand had to work around key absentees and a suspension. Williams and Crotty at inside centre, Coles at hooker and the lethal Ben Smith all missed out. Smith was a huge loss given (a) it left Dagg badly exposed at full back in Wellington and more importantly (b) he’s the best attacking back in world rugby.

And as much as you’d credit Owen Farrell for holing the putts that mattered when everything else in his game was misfiring – no one parks a double bogey better than Farrell – let’s not forget that Beauden Barrett missed three times in the Second Test and twice in the Third. Furthermore would the Lions have won in Wellington had the All Blacks not been dealt their first red card in fifty years? Would the Lions have won in Auckland Part Two had the Kiwis – uncharacteristically – not bombed four, clear try-scoring opportunities? You wouldn’t have bet on it. No question, Lady Luck in this series was a lioness.

The draw puzzled an awful lot of people. Cory Jane – ex-All Black – wanted to see the two captains playing ‘rock, paper, scissors’; Gary Lineker lamented that ‘with Farrell and not a German in sight, we might have won a penalty shootout’. But hopefully sanity will prevail and they’ll keep the format the same for future tours. All square made for crap post-match interviews but, more importantly, for an honest and a heart-warming denouement.

Did the series puncture the All Black bubble and has the mystique lost some of its lustre? We’ll know more when the Rugby Championship and the Bledisloe Cup swings around. Despite the result, Steve Hansen had a decent series. Four of New Zealand’s five tries came from players he – boldly – chose to blood, he showed some classy touches in defeat and offered the kind of perspective that sport these days doesn’t get enough of. His skipper was a gentleman and an absolute totem for his team, as – for that matter – was Warren Gatland’s.

But the Home Unions will have watched the past fortnight or so with a hint of a wolfish smile, not least England and Eddie Jones. Nowell, Watson, Daly, Te’o, Itoje, Lawes, George, Sinckler, Vunipola – and let’s not forget Steve Borthwick – all had cracking tours and with the ‘leftovers’ winning two stupendous Tests in Argentina, England will fancy their chances come Japan and – if they meet them – against New Zealand.

The Lions of 2017 are already melted snowmen; all that remains is a scarf, two pieces of coal, a carrot and Kyle Sinckler’s handcuffs. But wither the Lions per se? Off the narrowest of defeats in South Africa, a win in Australia and – now – a draw in New Zealand, they look to be in the very rudest of health and since it’s high time someone brought the whining, English Premiership down a peg or two, the Home Unions should strike while the iron’s hot and explain to the idiot clubs the difference between cost and value. Much of this depends on the English players too. All will be signing new club contracts sometime in the next four years and each should absolutely insist on a Lions opt-out clause. It’s your career, boys. Take control of it.

The Lions might also want to consider finding some way to crowbar Argentina into the schedule and, while they’re there, Scotland too, given a poll taken before the series north of the border showed fewer than half would be rooting for the Lions. In fairness, if the SRU chains its best coach to the railings then it doesn’t deserve too much sympathy but a Lions Test Series with no Scot in it needs addressing somehow.

Nationalism – generally – is an ugly concept yet it’s a tough one for the Lions to avoid. This group – in the words of Manager, John Spencer – ‘set a Kiwi to catch a Kiwi’ and came close to pulling off the nigh on impossible. But while the thinking on that’s seductive, the British and Irish Lions really should be Head Coached by either a Briton or an Irishman. That’s not to disrespect Warren Gatland who did a good job – on the pitch certainly – but the Lions should be flying south for the winter saying, ‘this is the best of us’, not ‘this is the best of us plus a Kiwi.’ Otherwise, what’s the point?

Yet Gatland, right now, will be the bookies’ hot favourite for South Africa in 2021 and the man himself is ruling out nothing. And why would he? His record against the Southern Hemisphere with Ireland was 0-8, with Wales it’s 2-18 and with the Lions it’s 3-1-2. Does the red shirt bring out the best in him or the players he coaches? Probably both but then you’d suspect Ian McGeechan’s numbers – Scotland ‘versus’ the Lions – would look pretty similar.

New Zealand loved the tourists and the feeling was clearly reciprocated; the glorious exception being the sports pages of ‘The New Zealand Herald’ who were – and who are – an affront to the profession. And which other event would give you Alex Edwards, a Lions supporter who turned up at Ponsonby Rugby Club with his campervan and got taken in by a lovely lady called Sandra who offered him a mattress on the floor and who turned out to be Reiko Ioane’s mother. Trust me, this doesn’t happen at the Ryder Cup.

For myself, I stayed in three hotels, two of whom double-charged me on parking; K-dog gave me his bird flu the day I flew home; I missed the start of ‘Le Tour de France’ and my hero, Geraint Thomas, in the yellow jumper; my boy came off his bike face first, smashing a tooth and road-rashing his entire body – that wasn’t in ‘Le Tour’ by the way, that was coming down the hill from Yanworth – and both my wedding anniversaries passed by without me; for the record, that’s two weddings on consecutive days to the same wife. It’s a long story. Don’t ask.

But for all that and while the Lions experience is nothing like as romantic or as personal – or, sadly, as polite – as it was when I first stumbled across it twenty years ago, the tour remains unique; the one, great legacy of the amateur era that can wipe its own nose in the professional world; an enduring institution that offers one of the great narratives in sport and which deserves to be fought for tooth and nail. Crusade? Prep school outing? Whatever the hell it is, the players adore it and the supporters can’t get enough of it: who gives a damn what anyone else thinks?

11JULY 2017


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