View from New Zealand: We're just happy to take your money

We led a campaign to personally victimise Warren Gatland? What absolute nonsense

 

New Zealand Rugby’s coffers are stuffed as fat as a Christmas turkey thanks to the British and Irish Lions.

For six weeks stadiums from Whangarei to Dunedin were full and 20,000 hugely passionate, cashed up Brits and Irish spent themselves silly. New Zealand loves the British and Irish Lions.

No matter what Warren Gatland said, the Lions as a concept remains one that is deeply embraced and respected by New Zealanders.

The Lions were a God-send. An easy team to love and concept to embrace

Just as everyone from across Britain and Ireland loves the idea of this curiously engaging composite team getting together every four years, so too do Kiwis.

And that includes the New Zealand media who spent most of the tour being accused of running a co-ordinated campaign to personally victimise Gatland. It was nonsense.

The Lions were awful in their first two games and it seemed there was tetchiness within the Lions management team that this wasn’t glossed over or conveniently re-written by the local media.

Nor did they seem to realise that the decision to bring over the so-called ‘”geography six” was as insulting to the teams the Lions played as it was to the jersey itself. Analysis, perhaps harsh at times, was seen as negativity by the Lions and the absurdity of that became tedious more than anything else.

If they had retained an emotionless perspective and slightly thicker skins, they may have come to realise that with near hysterical competition between media outlets, the Lions were a God-send. An easy team to love and concept to embrace.

It’s kind of hard not to when the tour delivers about NZ$30 million (€19 million) of profit to New Zealand Rugby.

That sort of money goes a long way to building the next Barrett clan. It buys a lot of rugby balls, coaching time and equipment – the nuts and bolts sort of stuff that keeps the All Blacks ahead of the game.

But the Lions aren’t just a cash cow. They aren’t seen like that now they managed to draw a series with the All Blacks and prove that four coming into one can work.

The truth, that most astute analysts had worked out by the end of last year, is that the All Blacks needed a reality check of some sort.

They lost 800-plus Test caps at the end of the 2015 World Cup and yet came into 2016 and appeared to go up another level again. They averaged almost six tries per game and 43 points.

It was ridiculous and for some it was confirmation that the All Blacks were this magical machine that could press a button and improve.

What had really happened, however, was that their Southern Hemisphere opponents had regressed alarmingly and were simply no good. It created the wrong impression that Test football had lost some of its sheen – that it was a relentless procession of the All Blacks being far too good for everyone else.

It was putting people off. Causal followers drifted away during the season as interest dwindled without serious competition until Ireland went some way towards bursting that bubble in Chicago.

What the Lions have done is further restore faith that the All Blacks aren’t entitled to win. The Lions, like Ireland late last year, have shown that there is genuine competition at the highest parts of the game and that big games can come with both drama and spectacle.

New Zealanders are not happy with the performance of referee Romain Poite. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
New Zealanders are not happy with the performance of referee Romain Poite. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

There is now increased excitement and edge thinking ahead to the Rugby Championship and the possibility of more classic encounters that go to to the wire and test the resolve of a young, inexperienced All Blacks side.

It has been so long since the All Blacks have been tested the way the Lions managed – over three consecutive games - that it was almost refreshing and reassuring.

The Lions have whetted rugby appetites in New Zealand and the total lack of public outcry with the drawn series is a sign of the respect which the British & Irish Lions earned through their performances.

It’s also unavoidably true that New Zealanders have had a more deserving target for their ire than the the All Blacks. The performance of the two French referees – Jerome Garces and Romain Poite – in Tests two and three have been the subject of some derision.

Most particularly the last minute decision by Poite to reverse a penalty that even Beauden Barrett would most likely have knocked over to win it for the All Blacks. It was a horrid call. Wrong and against his own instincts and the advice of two of the other match officials.

The British & Irish Lions were unduly rewarded for being cynical in the second two Tests

No doubt that decision hasn’t registered so hard on the other side of the world in the same way Australians didn’t dwell on Craig Joubert’s wrong call in the last minute of the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against Scotland.

Ignoring it or downplaying it doesn’t necessarily help anyone, however. Remove, for a second, the victim of this injustice and don’t imagine for a second that the All Blacks are hanging on this wrong call as the reason they didn’t win.

They know they didn’t play well enough. They know they blew a few tries in the first half of the third Test and should have been out of sight long before the last minute.

But the call was still wrong and if it is ignored, swept under the carpet as irrelevant then the chances are high that in a few months there will be another high profile mistake where a team other than the All Blacks is robbed of victory by human error.

That sense of injustice has been stoked by the feeling that the British & Irish Lions were unduly rewarded for being cynical in the second two Tests.

Defensively they were terrific. They moved the ball better than anyone expected and they earned ample respect for the way they played and combined it with courage and commitment.

Yet there is no question they never consistently set their defensive line behind the hind foot. They incessantly killed the ball in the second Test to close down All Blacks attacks but somehow avoided a yellow card. Mako Vunipola somehow avoided a red card for his double attack on Barrett and then in the third Test, the last penalty the Lions earned was one that no longer gets awarded in Super Rugby.

Rhys Webb threw the ball at Wyatt Crockett when the All Blacks prop was not interfering with play. The series ended with the Lions having won plenty of respect but it’s just that everyone wished they hadn’t been quite as cynical. Or actually, it’s just that everyone wished they hadn’t been able to get away with being so cynical.

So too is there a lingering disappointment that accusations were made after the first Test that the All Blacks had deliberately set out to physically damage Conor Murray.

That crossed a line as if those concerns had been genuine rather than about creating some niggle, then they would have been made through an official complaint and not casually and half-heartedly through the media.

But in the greater scheme of things these disappointments can be readily forgotten. One look at the bank account and all can be forgiven.

Gregor Paul is a rugby writer with the New Zealand Herald

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