The Lions series is over. So who won? Geraint Powell believes victory went to a few worth honourable mention – players, coaches and fans who respect tradition, refs with empathy, Kieran Read, Steve Hansen, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and the cemented reputation of Warren Gatland.
It may have felt flat at full-time – like “kissing your sister” as All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen put it – but a 15-15 drawn match and a drawn Test series was probably a fair overall result and certainly what the under pressure British and Irish Lions concept required.
And what World Rugby required, if we are frank, such has become the unhealthy dominance of New Zealand in the last decade as South Africa, Australia and France have fallen away from their traditional high standards for very differing reasons.
The fact that All Blacks captain Kieran Read described a draw in terms of a defeat offers a wonderful insight into the All Blacks mentality, a mind set to which the chasing nations can only aspire.
The pivotal moment on Saturday came in the 78th minute when, under aerial pressure from Read, Liam Williams spilled the ball forward into the hands of Scarlets team mate Ken Owens, who instantly recognised the danger and proceeded to let go of the ball. The incident served once again to demonstrate just how difficult it has become to referee this sort of Test match in the modern era, an increasing problem when jobs and careers can now turn on subjective refereeing decisions.
Romain Poite may, arguably, have penalised Read for racing in front of kicker Beauden Barrett at the re-start, but that offence is seldom penalised any more. It is has become like the straight scrum put-in, more notable for its breach rather than its observance, and one which Aaron Smith gave a masterclass in over the course of the three Test matches.
Poite might, arguably, have penalised Read for his aerial challenge on Williams for, whilst he undoubtedly kept his eye on the ball, it was arguable he was never going to seriously challenge for it and secure it.
But once Poite penalised neither of those potential offences, and Owens clearly caught the ball in front of Williams rather than there being accidental contact with him, the correct sanction was a penalty kick if the All Blacks were prevented from gaining an advantage.
I suspect there is likely to be continuing uproar in the New Zealand media, even if Hansen was diplomatic, over Poite changing his initial penalty decision after consultation with his officials, a decision compounded by his failure to discuss the correct test to withdraw the initial penalty decision. But would Courtney Lawes have beaten Anton Lienert-Brown to the loose ball, meaning the All Blacks would have gained no advantage under Law 11.7 from the contact with Owens?
With the teams all square after 237 minutes, perhaps it was inevitable that Poite did not want to probably decide the match and the series on such a technical infringement and empathetically decided to let the matter settle with an attacking scrum for the All Blacks. The final passage of play itself ended with a courageous try-saving tackle from Williams on Jordie Barrett in the corner.
The All Blacks will be frustrated by their first half profligacy, having dominated territory and possession, for the one hope for many Lions fans was that the inexperienced Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett would struggle under the pressure of such a huge Test match. The hearts of such fans were sinking as Laumape scored one try and put Jordie Barrett in for another, but other first half chances went begging and they proved costly for the All Blacks in the end.
In the second half, the Lions were able to maintain an impressive defensive line speed and gradually slow the match down and drag the All Blacks into the arm-wrestle that ended all-square. If All Black attack coach (and head coach heir apparent) Ian Foster undoubtedly won the 1st Test through his planned and well-executed playing through Aaron Smith tactic, then Lions defence coach Andy Farrell will have been pleased with the 3rd Test and especially the second-half defence.
Until Beauden Barrett’s goal-kicking improves, or another goal kicker is brought into the team, opponents may now sense they will always have a chance if they can keep close to the All Blacks on the scoreboard.
Once the dust settles, and as he looks forward to the Rugby Championship, one suspects that Hansen will take a number of positives from this Test series. Without Dane Coles (injured), Vice-Captain Ben Smith (injured, 1st Test), Ryan Crotty (injured, 1st Test) and Sonny Bill Williams (suspended after 2nd Test), the All Blacks have been able to blood fresh talent and that talent hasn’t looked remotely out of place upon the step up from Super Rugby to Test match rugby. It will be interesting to see whether the recently recalled Malakai Fekitoa will now fight for a midfield berth with the All Blacks, or head offshore for cash and put an end to his All Blacks aspirations.
But there has been one winner on this tour, the entire concept of the Lions. Heritage has sadly become almost a dirty word in Welsh rugby, due to the selfish actions of some within several fan bases divisively attempting to coerce and impose their own club heritage on a regional rugby system.
The Lions are a wonderful example of a unifying heritage. They are the art of bringing together the best rugby players in the British Isles, and the fan bases, for six weeks of brutal touring once every four years and with precious little preparation time.
It has been a mixed-bag for the thrown together Lions players, with few individually excelling. Jonathan Davies has certainly had a Test series to remember, the culmination of gradually improving form during 2017, but most other players have done some things well and other things not so well. Williams has perhaps been a microcosm for others and the team, courageous in the tackle and at times lethal on the counter-attack, but flaky at times under the high ball.
The front five have perhaps overall been a disappointment, never remotely imposing themselves upon the All Blacks. Maro Itoje has shown what he does well, and flagged a few potential weaknesses to other national coaches. The way that Sam Warburton has demonstrated how to slow breakdown re-cycling by the All Blacks will not have gone unnoticed by other national coaches.
Perhaps the strength of this Lions squad has been the collective unity and willpower. Owen Farrell, probably by his own admission, had an opening 20 minutes to forget in the decider, but he did not let that weigh down on him and he later took his goal kicks with aplomb.
The Lions concept will remain under pressure, for it is a time-consuming rarity that does not directly fit the commercial agenda of independent “player owning” clubs in the northern hemisphere. But the Lions is a brand worth preserving, whatever the short-term monetisation issues.
There will be some closely monitoring the form and fitness of Lions players in 2017-18, for pre-season training is underway before these players return to the British Isles at the end of their 2016-17 campaign.
It will remain difficult for clubs to obtain a slice of the Lions’ financial pie, for the once every four years financial bonanza for the host nation is intricately tied-in to the much wider reciprocating November/June tours model and therefore cannot be treated by the home unions or by anybody else in splendid isolation.
If the home unions were internally ever forced to abolish the Lions, or at least to demand a different financial model, they will recognise that all other inter-hemisphere Test matches will be moved by SANZAR to a 50/50 shared income per match model. That would include a per match financial allocation for long-term broadcaster deals and hundreds of individual commercial sponsors.
And this makes no financial sense whatsoever for the home unions, who earn more in November and who often reciprocate by sending tired and decimated squads southbound in June, so they will just have to face down any internal club opposition for their own sake and financial self-preservation.
It would do no harm to once every four years abolish the domestic play-offs in the northern hemisphere, to one year in four have a league winning criteria rather than finish in the top four and for four teams to go again and start afresh in the play-offs. This would provide a fresh and differing challenge for players and clubs alike within each four-yearly cycle.
And the other winner is, of course, Warren Gatland. He would have accepted a Test series draw, before the tour began. He has shown how to close down a more skilful opposition on their home turf, even without his own set piece dominance.
His former Waikato team mate Foster must remain the favourite to become the All Blacks head coach in 2020. But the odds on Gatland have shortened, and especially the odds on Foster himself bringing on board Gatland.
Gatland often receives vitriolic abuse from some rugby fans in Wales, partly for the playing style of his teams and partly due to who appointed him. The jury may still be out on his failure to freshen-up his coaching team after the 2015 World Cup, eight years into his tenure, but he can at least treat his last two years in Wales as a fresh start and challenge. If nothing else, Gatland is loyal to those he trusts and who have done a job for him.
He had the misfortune to be the Welsh head coach five years ago, during the last battle to preserve the flawed “super” club version of regional rugby. It’s 2017 now and nearly everybody appreciates that transformational change is required, and has already begun at the Dragons region of Gwent, with the only remaining questions being how and to what. So, Gatland, rather than having a regional problem underneath him, in his final two years can relax and help create his lasting legacy through his input over the evolving regional rugby model and other WRU pyramidal structural problems.
Who else at the Welsh Rugby Union or the regions has head coach Test series win in Australia and Test series draw in New Zealand on their CV? He has the opportunity to complete the regional rugby system, to complete the intended regional rugby model that went hideously awry after Graham Henry left the WRU.
He has the opportunity to leave a wider legacy than just narrowly focussing upon the 2019 World Cup campaign, as important as it will be.
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