Monday 24 July 2017

Alan Quinlan: The Lions may have made one crucial mistake this week - and I'm not talking about a few beers

They have proven All Blacks are not invincible but length of tourists' time off may prove costly

The Lions players listen in as Graham Rowntree delivers instructions ahead of tomorrow’s deciding third Test against New Zealand. Photo: Getty
The Lions players listen in as Graham Rowntree delivers instructions ahead of tomorrow’s deciding third Test against New Zealand. Photo: Getty

Alan Quinlan

It was 20 to ten on a winter's evening in Wellington. The sun had long since slipped down, the clouds had emptied and so had the 'Cake Tin' stadium.

Nonetheless, crowds were still hanging around outside, words of congratulations were exchanged and something an old man said struck a chord.

He must have been about 70, old enough to remember the Lions coming here in 1971, and certainly old enough to remember the last time New Zealand lost back-to-back Tests. "Enjoy tonight guys," he said, good humouredly to a group of Lions supporters. "Enjoy it, because you won't get the chance to do so next Saturday. All Blacks don't lose two weeks on the trot."

Well, they certainly haven't done this century. In fact, you have to go back to 1998 for when it last happened, the year Clare and Waterford were feuding in a Munster hurling final, France were winning the soccer World Cup and the Good Friday Agreement was being signed.

Since then the All Blacks have moved rugby on to a different level. They're aggressive yet skilful, united yet packed with individual talent, inspired by tradition yet open to new ideas. They are simply the best in the world. And they know it.

Spending these last three weeks in New Zealand has evoked memories of my childhood, with the last seven days in particular rekindling thoughts from the summer of 1987, and the week separating the drawn Munster final between Tipperary and Cork in Thurles and the replay in Killarney.

Everywhere you went that week, Tipp people spoke about one thing. Who knows what tragedies were happening around the world because the only topic of conversation was hurling.

I was 12 years old, immersed in the whole thing, lucky enough to attend both matches. And the only thing we heard about that week were references to 1971, when Tipp had won their previous Munster Championship.

This week, 1971 has been talked about at length again. You walk into a shop, people hear your accent and the chat begins.

"Here to watch the Lions?", and off they go, talking about last Saturday, about 2005 and also '71.

You sit in a restaurant and the waiter doesn't just take your order but also your opinion. "How do you think it'll go?"

You say what's on your mind, that the three changes Steve Hansen has made to his starting XV is a source of intrigue, that you were impressed by Hansen as a man, not just as a coach, in terms of how he deflated the horrible hype growing around Warren Gatland, and then how manly he was to show graciousness in defeat.

You express the belief that Hansen will have his team pumped up for Saturday's Test, yet that he will also have a clear strategy, to go toe-to-toe around the fringes and to not be that expansive, and all the while the waiter, the shopkeeper or the hotelier just looks at you and nods.

Politeness ensures they listen to your words. But do they actually hear them? To a man, they all reply. "Yeah, but we never lose two weeks in a row."

And they say it so often they have convinced themselves that the third Test, back in Eden Park, is a foregone conclusion, that the 58 minutes they had to play with just seven forwards negated the influence of Kieran Read and Sam Cane, and that the Lions won't get things so easily again.

While I have argued that the Lions will be better this week, that the Irish influence may help, given how Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, CJ Stander, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong experienced victory in Chicago and then a 'Blacklash' in Dublin, the words have been meaningless.

New Zealand in 2017 is like Tipperary in 1987, filled with passionate sports fans who are longing for the weekend, the chance to finish the job off, to see their heroes play the sport they love. If Tipp is the home of hurling, this place, trust me, is the home of rugby.

And yet even though I appear to be in a minority of one in this country, the feeling persists that if the Lions hold onto the ball better than they did last week, if they deliver greater accuracy in attack, then they can win.

Physically, they can match New Zealand but their discipline has to improve. The concession of silly penalties nearly cost them the series last Saturday. A calmer frame of mind is needed at Eden Park.

The most fascinating thing for me is whether the Lions can bring the same level of intensity again. New Zealanders are hurting badly.

"Another Sonny Bill Williams incident won't happen this time," my shopkeeper friend tells me. "Beauden Barrett won't miss as many penalties," they argue. "All will be all sorted and we will win the series."

New Zealand have trained hard all week. The Lions have had a few days off. New Zealand have worked on lineouts, the Lions have gone bungee-jumping.

Who is preparing better? The answer isn't so obvious. For seven weeks, the Lions have been in a pressurised environment. They have had no time off, their supposed down-time was actually spent travelling. Tours like this can be very tense.

Gatland knows the importance of getting the balance right, that mentally he needed to re-energise the Lions players.

Believe it or not, they would have benefited from getting away from the training pitch.

Having a few drinks is not the issue. For me, the issue is that they stayed in Queenstown for one day too long.

They should have been back in Auckland on Tuesday, training in that city on Wednesday. Instead, they didn't get there for another 24 hours.

Playing the best team in the world three weeks on the trot takes its toll. I spoke to some of the players last week. They were physically sore, players who've played a lot of rugby across a long season.

New Zealand are not in a similar situation. They only came together three weeks ago. They have not been on a draining tour. A break was not what they needed but was precisely what the Lions did require.

But did they delay the return to Auckland and the return to training just that little too much?

Tomorrow will answer that question.

It will also answer a question about whether these players will be remembered as gallant losers, as fellas who improved as the tour went on, and who delivered a nerveless victory against the world's best in Wellington but who came up short a week later, or whether they can strive for rugby immortality.

Deep within their souls they'll know that a Test series win in New Zealand would be a life-changing event.

Win tomorrow and these guys will be walking around as old men still talking about what they achieved.

And that's some prize to play for.

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport