Lions 2017: The highs and lows of the tour of New Zealand
From a miserable defeat to the Blues through to redemption in the Wellington rain
Sean O’Brien finished off one of the all-time great Lions tries in the opening Test at Eden Park. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
New Zealand Herald’s depiction of Warren Gatland as a clown
Lampooning visiting coaches by picturing them in clown’s garb is a recent trademark of the NZ Herald, first it was Australia’s Michael Cheika and then Lions head coach Warren Gatland. It carried an edge that transcended humour, a mocking caricature designed for a cheap laugh.
Gatland shrugged it off but to his credit All Blacks coach Steve Hansen took a stand on his coaching counterpart’s behalf: “I think it is really disappointing. I have got a lot of respect for him. I think he is a good coach. To come out and do that, you are ridiculing somebody that doesn’t deserve it.”
The geographical six
A miscalculation on a significant scale, it contradicted the self proclaimed ethos and values of the Lions that the touring squad is comprised of the best players from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. That hasn’t always been the case and there is precedence but that’s not a legitimate excuse to perpetuate mistakes.
Bringing in players based on geography, while disregarding the meritocracy process, was an error compounded by an about-turn that was equally hard to legitimise when it cost the Lions a victory against the Hurricanes, not to mention leaving the accidental tourists in an invidious position, through no fault of their own.
The defeat to the Blues
It is probably the defeat that will rankle most not least because it highlighted the shortcomings that afflicted the tourists in the early part of the tour and occasionally resurfaced in the ensuing matches. A ridiculously high penalty count (13) and a yellow card gave the Blues a massive leg-up towards victory.
The Lions dominated territory and possession for large tranches of the game but the blunt force trauma of the Lions’ attack contrasted sharply with the skills shown by the Blues in claiming that match-winning try. The tourists would improve subsequently but this was a low point.
Allowing for a certain parochialism in an Irish context injuries to Leinster trio Rob Henshaw, Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien were a disappointing legacy that will be keenly felt by their provinces at the start of next season, so too Ulster’s Jared Payne and his on-going migraine headaches.
Henshaw (bicep) will be out for four months following surgery, while O’Brien (shoulder in a sling) and Sexton (ankle) will be hoping to avoid such a lay-off. Payne’s recovery timeframe may be less easy to pin down.
Winning the second Test
At 18-9 down and playing against a side reduced to 14 players following Sonny Bill Williams’ sending off, defeat would have consigned this second Test to a hugely disappointing opportunity missed, but instead the Lions found cutting edge and belief at a time when they threatened to suffocate under the pressure.
Scoring two quality tries in that context was a massive achievement, supplemented by keeping their try-line intact throughout the 80 minutes. So too keeping their nerve in that fraught endgame individually and collectively, rewarded by the final penalty and a victory they ultimately deserved.
Beating the New Zealand Maori
An intelligent game plan executed intelligently on a wet night in which the Lions strangled the life out of their opponents with a performance based on pragmatism and forward power. Some ascribed the framework to traditional northern hemisphere rugby against opponents who flattered to deceive.
The second half performance in particular showcased a hard-nosed intensity, carrying powerfully and using the set piece as a weapon. Six of that pack started the second Test and four of the backline. The Lions got stronger as the game progressed and a 32-10 win would have imbued both confidence and momentum.
Sean O’Brien’s try in the first Test
Anthony Watson scampers back to field Aaron Cruden’s kick again the grain and passes inside to Liam Williams inside the Lions 22. The fullback sidesteps Kieran Read, glides outside Cruden and inside Sonny Bill Williams, escaping upfield before throwing a superb pass out of the tackle to Jonathan Davies.
The Welsh centre immediately releases Elliot Daly, who veers inside and outside occupying multiple defenders before he offloads to Davies, who in turn pirouettes out of a tackle to find the supporting Sean O’Brien: 90-metres, a perfect amalgam of skill, athleticism and vision, one that bears comparison with the best scored by any Lions team.
Drawing the Test series
The draw is the ugly duckling of sport, unloved for the most part by all bar those who have wagered on such an outcome. But when they delve beneath the headlines of the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand and examine the three tests in detail, the tourists may come to appreciate the magnitude of their achievement. They went to the home of the double world champions and came away with a share of the Test spoils.
New Zealand were the better team over the series but not on the, scoreboard the ultimate arbiter of fact over conjecture, no matter how informed. The Lions showed character and mettle in adversity, finding a way to win the second Test and not to escape intact from the third.