Saturday 21 October 2017

Neil Francis: Only two All Blacks would get in their 2005 side - New Zealand are now doubted favourites

Losing to Gatland and Co would be serious blow to the coaching ticket that raised the game

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I went to see one of my favourite Englishmen Ricky Gervais performing at the 3Arena recently. There is nothing more edifying than listening to him nail the politically correct to the wall.

Even if he wasn't funny it would be worth the admission price alone just to hear him speak sense in a world that has become disorientated and muddled. Everyone got a thorough examination. Midway through his performance Isis got the treatment.

He was five minutes into his sketch on the insanity of that particular organisation when he changed course.

Up to that point he had regaled the crowd and they had reciprocated. Everyone was enjoying themselves. He made the point about how atrocities are carried out and then he said at least the IRA gave you a little bit of warning.

"Hello, is that the pub?"

"Yes this is the pub."

Jerome Kaino of the All Blacks goes past Mako Vunipola during the first test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: GETTY
Jerome Kaino of the All Blacks goes past Mako Vunipola during the first test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: GETTY

"Can you get everyone out we're going to blow the place up…"

The skit went on for another minute and suddenly all the laughter and all the noise stopped.

An Englishman comes to Dublin and starts telling jokes about the IRA blowing up pubs. He stopped his routine, edged forward to the front of the stage and asked "do I sense a little tension here?"

He cracked up laughing and the crowd followed him.

Amazing how the dynamic of a situation changes when you go a little bit off course or choose a subject that you probably shouldn't engage in. He is who he is and he pulled it off brilliantly. A great performance.

The Lions have been wonderfully well received all over New Zealand, great tourists saying all the right things and pressing all the right buttons, stimulating the New Zealand economy, generating hundreds of millions of dollars, interacting with the community - great to have them there.

The thing though is not to go off piste - to not do something which your hosts would not expect you to do, like winning the second Test. Well that has changed the dynamic totally and unlike Gervais the Lions really aren't in the mood to joke their way out of this one.

The win last week was improbable and maybe they have used up all their luck in getting a win which squares the series but by doing something completely unexpected it changes everything - how the host see them, how the New Zealand public see them and, most importantly, how the All Blacks see them.

The win was so much more than being 'great for rugby.' The switch in mood is perceptible. There may well now be self-doubt and uncertainty in the New Zealand ranks. The Lions, however, are now full of self-belief and confidence. The priceless gift of momentum in sport at the highest level can never be discounted.

One of the things that intrigued me about the match last Saturday was how New Zealand regrouped after the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams. At the time of his dismissal the score was 3-3. But 33 minutes later they were leading 18-9 and on course to win.

I thought the sacrificing of Jerome Kaino was interesting. In most dismissals at Test level it is normally a forward who goes to the side line, (let's face it we're bad people), it is rare that a three-quarter is sent off.

I just wonder what was going through Steve Hansen's mind at the time. Maybe it was the correct call, maybe the All Blacks thought that they could more than handle the Lions pack with just seven men. On one or two of the scrums they didn't even bother putting a back in on the side of the scrum.

I thought that in a wet game you would keep eight forwards on the pitch because the slippy ball might just go against trying to play an expansive game. The only time you would really get caught out would possibly be at scrum time.

It's easy enough to defend off lineouts and when the ball is going through the phases it doesn't matter really what number is on your back.

I just felt that in the last 20 minutes the New Zealand pack really struggled against the full Lions pack and the addition of Jack McGrath and Courtney Lawes turned the screw.

Sam Cane was running on empty when he was replaced, Kieran Read looked dead on his feet and for the great bit of stuff that is Ardie Savea, this was not the sort of game which utilises his freakish athleticism.

The Lions won last Saturday because the All Blacks pack didn't last the pace as a seven but the point here is they should never have replaced Kaino. Arrogance peut etre?

The Lions, despite the advantage, got only two chances but crucially took them both.

In the days after the match the All Blacks were meek and humble. I'm not sure about the sincerity of the humility, and as the former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once said "don't be so humble, you're not that great."

I have watched the Lions 2005 series again, which was educational. The 21-3 win in Christchurch in appalling conditions was the best rain game I have ever seen. The skill levels of the All Blacks in a hurricane was exceptional.

The series was really Dan Carter's series after he single-handedly destroyed the Lions in the second Test. The score being 48-18. It's worth reminding ourselves of that team.

15. Mils Muliaina

14. Doug Howlett

13. Tana Umaga

12. Aaron Mauger

11. Sitiveni Sivivatu

10. Dan Carter

9. Justin Marshall

1. Tony Woodcock

2. Keven Mealamu

3. Carl Hayman

4. Ali Williams

5. Chris Jack

6. Jerry Collins

7. Richie McCaw

8. Rodney So'alo

That was an exceptional side and the only players from the current side that would have a chance of getting in would be Brodie Retalick and Read.

Even back then Graham Henry made changes to his winning side - Byron Kelleher for Justin Marshall, Leon MacDonald replaced by Muliaina and Rico Gear replacing Doug Howlett. Exceptional talent replacing exceptional talent and the reason being, in most cases, that the player in possession didn't play to the standard required of a team of that quality. Just how good are this All Black side?

It has been well documented that they have lost most of their stars from their World Cup win of 2015. How good are South Africa and Australia? It is a sad sign of the times that these two traditional heavyweights haven't come close to putting any kind of concerted pressure on the All Blacks recently.

And so we find out just how good they are in two days' time. How they react to the unexpected. Hansen now has to earn his corn. I have said before that Panti Bliss would have upwards of an 85pc win record if she was coaching the All Blacks.

It's easy to coach the best side in the world. Hansen has had to make some serious changes to his back line and if they don't click and it rains in Auckland then the All Blacks are going to be stuck in another dogfight where their superior skill levels will count for little.

The All Black coaching ticket of Hansen, Ian Foster and in particular Wayne Smith are revered as deep rugby thinkers and pathfinders for the game and they have brought it on to new levels. It would be a great blow to their reputation if a coaching ticket of Warren Gatland, Steve Borthwick, Rob Howley and Andy Farrell undid them.

This may motivate them to take their opponents seriously. The referee Romain Poite will be a key figure. I thought Jerome Garces was outstanding last Saturday in direct contrast to Jaco Peyper who has the backbone of a chocolate eclair.

Poite is unpredictable and he will have his own interpretation on the breakdown and particularly of the scrum. Maybe all three would referee the off-side line which just hasn't been observed in the first two tests. The All Blacks credentials over the last few years have been undoubted.

They are favourites to win this Saturday but in my view they are doubted favourites. The Lions did not give the type of performance that I thought was required to win last Saturday and yet they won. Nothing short of the supreme effort will suffice this Saturday.

Irish Independent

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