Tuesday 19 September 2017

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Lions' charm offensive just a distraction

Johnny Sexton pauses for thought during Saturday’s opening game of the Lions tour. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton pauses for thought during Saturday’s opening game of the Lions tour. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Warren Gatland is determined not to repeat the mistakes of 2005, but in showing so much respect for their hosts off the pitch, the Lions are in danger of missing the opportunity to earn respect on it.

The head coach is trying to avoid the cultural missteps of Clive Woodward's ill-fated stint, yet he needs to hone in on the real reason people remember that tour: the 3-0 series 'Black-wash'.

Jared Payne watches the action from the stands after being ruled out through injury. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jared Payne watches the action from the stands after being ruled out through injury. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Yesterday morning, rather than do a recovery session and begin planning towards the first of their gruelling schedule of Super Rugby games against the Auckland Blues on Wednesday, the Lions made their way to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to receive their official Maori welcome.

It was an undeniably powerful ceremony and in terms of winning hearts and minds it will have done the world of good, but the Lions are here to win rugby matches and it's unclear what use the extra travel and distraction will have done them when it comes to their core job of performing.

As the sun beamed down and the Lions squad sang their four songs, it was easy to forget just how bad they had been the night before when they struggled to overcome the Provincial Barbarians.

Afterwards, Gatland complained that his side's preparations had been undermined by the schedule and also suggested back spasms suffered by Ross Moriarty and Kyle Sinckler had come about partly as a result of a community engagement that saw them spend "five hours" in branded four-wheel drives on the way from Auckland to Whangarei on the eve of the game.

A Maori warrior lays a challenge down for Lions head coach Warren Gatland during a Maori Welcome at Waitangi Treaty Grounds yesterday. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images
A Maori warrior lays a challenge down for Lions head coach Warren Gatland during a Maori Welcome at Waitangi Treaty Grounds yesterday. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Having only arrived in New Zealand on Wednesday, he complained of the team's struggles with jet lag.

They might have gotten in earlier had they not stopped in Melbourne as part of another sponsorship tie-in.

He was keen to focus on the result and point to the chances his side created during their 13-7 win, but if the entirely new XV he names tonight produce a similar performance at Eden Park on Wednesday then they will be in real trouble.

For all they are eager to rebuild their damaged brand and pay homage to the local culture, they will ultimately be judged on what they do on the field.

Anthony Watson dives over for the Lions’ only try. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Anthony Watson dives over for the Lions’ only try. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

On Saturday morning, the 'New Zealand Herald' suggested that the opener might be the only win they pick up in their 10 games on tour and if that seemed disingenuous, then the performance was hardly defiant.

The catcalls and derision that came from the local fans added to the sense that for all the charm they lay on in the community, what happens between the white lines is all that matters.

Their performance was awful on Saturday and if it could be put down to jet lag and a lack of organisation, then the inspired efforts of the collection of club players, Super Rugby fringe operators and semi-professionals opposite them was a reminder that it should have been better.

Read more: Sexton is left to wait for shot at Test redemption

Tough

"We only had the week together," Irish prop Oliver Jager explained of their lack of preparation.

"It was tough to get everything sorted, tough to get plays. We only had three strike plays, we had one or two scrum sessions; lineout, there was three calls. Really, it was off the cuff."

Despite that, the locals were able to apply pressure.

Gatland's son, Bryn, was excellent in peppering the back-three with clever kicks and helped his father identify some weak spots - particularly in Stuart Hogg's efforts.

Their ball skills put the highly paid professionals to shame at times, while their spirit shone through. The semi-professionals, try-scoring captain Sam Anderson-Heather among them, should be proud when they turn up for work this morning.

The Lions insisted that this was just the opener, a loosener ahead of the battles to come.

"If I asked, 'how did X play in Hong Kong four years ago?' I don't think many people can recall that," captain Sam Warburton said.

And he's right. Nobody should get carried away with what happened; players like Johnny Sexton and Iain Henderson who lost ground will hope to get another shot.

However, as a collective the performance was a reminder of just how difficult a challenge this will be and the focus must be entirely on that task.

Still, there will be more sponsorship and community commitments to come and tour manager John Spencer says there are no plans at this point to shelve some of those in order to focus on the rugby.

"I don't think we need any knee-jerk reactions," he said.

"The first match of the tour is always difficult because you have just travelled. I remember in 1971 we won all our provincial matches here, 20 matches, but we lost the first one of our tour in Queensland, Australia - and we had one of our best teams out.

"So these things happen, but I hope everyone will remember that we have played one, won one, and that is the important thing at this stage.

"We want to do this. It's not like any other tour. We're trying to have as many of these welcomes and celebrations at the beginning of the tour as between the Test matches things get very busy. We want time at the beginning of the tour so we can show proper respect."

So the players will continue to be rolled out to build the brand when they could be either getting valuable rest, bonding or doing some extra work on the challenges to come.

All the while, the All Blacks lie in wait.

The commercial team would do well to remember how much damage a disastrous performance can do to their brand.

As the Maori warriors launched into their Haka in Waitangi, it was remarkable how many Lions suits faced them - 41 were players, but a huge number of support staff joined them in greeting the challenge.

Gatland's challenge in drawing the playing squad together is one thing, but making the organisation pull in one direction is an altogether different task. If they are to succeed in New Zealand, then it's arguably as important as anything to come on the training pitch.

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