As the All Blacks tore through the Lions during the first half of this deciding Test match, I couldn’t help wondering how every handling error was further eroding their confidence.
That proved the case in the end. That and a refereeing decision which is increasingly difficult to defend.
Ngani Laumape dropped a couple of balls in his first start, Anton Lienert-Brown looked uncomfortable at times, Julian Savea flushed from brilliance to error.
The Lions hung on in there. Even for Laumape’s try, I initially thought Jonathan Davies had lost him. Then I remembered it was Davies who tracked his man 80 metres uphill after Beauden Barrett intercepted Owen Farrell.
Any way we stack this series up it is a failure for the All Blacks.
But, on the flip side, was this inexperienced New Zealand group there for the taking? Callow midfielders, a completely rejigged backline and unreliable place-kicker – they were there to be caught.
Imagine if the attacking mind of Joe Schmidt or Eddie Jones was put to work on them over the past two weekends. This was the chance. Lienert-Brown and Laumape should have been exposed (via analysis transferred to the pitch).
Johnny Sexton and Farrell were superb, and the midfield selection proved a huge factor in not losing the second or third Tests. Whether it was all a big ruse by Warren Gatland, a masterstroke in coaching, or he just rolled the dice after the first Test when Ben Te’o, despite a hugely physical performance, butchered a clear try-scoring opportunity, we may discover in due course.
Either way, Sexton brought a calmness and control to the first-five with Farrell fitting nicely at 12 – where he has excelled for England.
However they figured it out, they got there in the end.
The Lions’ tight five were truly phenomenal in matching the ferocity of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Maro Itoje outplayed the best locking partnership in the game. Courtney Lawes justified his impact role.
Sam Cane was anonymous. I was surprised not to see TJ Perenara until 73 minutes. After an energetic start, like every Kiwi, Aaron Smith was struggling in the last quarter.
For all they say about the All Blacks, factoring in their thunderous start, the aura dims a little.
Beauden Barrett is rugby’s best attacking outhalf. But, right now, who is better served in that position: England, Ireland or New Zealand?
You can’t win a World Cup without a place-kicker. Farrell ticks that box for Eddie Jones. He returns to Saracens with an enhanced reputation despite some disastrous moments in the opening 20 minutes on Saturday when Barrett was ripping open the Lions defence with cross kicks and hard running.
Dan Carter guided New Zealand out of multiple problems in the 2015 World Cup semi-final and final. He dropped goals when they were needed. He kicked his points under pressure, in the tightest moments.
A player of that calibre is required when your 12, 13, 15 axis has only 17 caps between them with two of them making their first starts.
New Zealand, right now, do not have that sort of outhalf.
The game, the series came down to fatigue. And discipline.
But, already, there are noises coming from England about the step down in the expected standard of coaching, when compared to Jones.
It looks to me that the players took an increased ownership after losing the first Test 30-15. Sexton’s inclusion was always going to ensure that was the case. He, like any great player, takes direction from coaches before moulding matters as he sees fit on the field.
But I never saw the killer offensive plays with two or three variations that would have forced the young New Zealand centres to second guess themselves. Sexton certainly did that to Laumape leading up to Conor Murray’s try in the second Test.
But mostly the Lions drew the series by tapping into unbelievable levels of determination.
Steven Hansen and his coaches will go away now, lick their wounds, before enabling stunning talents like Beauden and Jordie Barrett to become better players. The Wallabies will suffer in six weeks’ time.
And so, probably, will everyone else en route to Japan 2019 (presuming they sort out their place-kicking issues).
This morning, possibly for the first and last time, they are missing the leadership of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
We know they will evolve, they always do.
Now, lesson number one for the Lions is the clogged schedule. This unique touring party needs a permanent place in the game. Every four years they need to be the priority, not domestic club leagues of Europe.
Current stakeholders say they want the Lions tour to continue, but allowing club games run into the start of this tour only dilutes that rhetoric.
Stacked in their favour
There is a persuasive argument to suggest the Lions were only in this fight on the final weekend because key players were made available earlier than expected when Saracens were beaten in the English Premiership semi-final by Exeter and because Leinster fell at the penultimate hurdle of the Pro12.
The All Blacks had everything stacked in their favour. How to level the playing field (besides sending off Sonny Bill)?
The midweek games on tour ensured a never-ending travel schedule which forced Gatland, he believes, into calling up the Geography Six and that led to heavy criticism.
The format the Lions are currently playing was decided nearly 12 years ago; how anyone could plan for a rugby tour that far in advance I do not know. The professional game has taken so any twists and turns in that period that it is vastly different to three years ago, never mind the 2005 landscape.
That’s a lifetime to a pro rugby player.
The stakeholders need a bit of groupthink before making their next move. The Lions generates serious money, we all know this, but has greed begun to supersede the ever-increasing risk of player welfare?
The Lions need more time to prepare. That is how this valuable entity will evolve, while also holding on to the incredible spirit that has given us such epic, highly competitive Test matches – like the 2001 decider against Australia, the second Test loss to the Springboks in 2009 and Saturday in Auckland.
They can’t have it both ways. Not anymore.