Thursday 20 July 2017

The Lions have still got some hope of success in the mighty jungle

Sonny Bill Williams and assistant coach Wayne Smith congratulate each other in the dressing room after the victory over the Lions. Photo: Getty
Sonny Bill Williams and assistant coach Wayne Smith congratulate each other in the dressing room after the victory over the Lions. Photo: Getty
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The Lions haven't even a song or an anthem of their very own.

In New Zealand, the mighty New Zealand, the Lions are not sleeping tonight. And their Haka is tossing and turning in the bed.

The Haka isn't just a declaration of war. The Haka is earthly and heavenly, spiritual yet tangible; a love poem to home, to be danced and spoken, and ingested for a holy sustenance, in deep gulps.

This national manifestation of unity and continuity is much, much more than throwing down a challenge.

In a way, the Maori's tradition of honouring the people who gave us our spiritual identity is no different to the player calling to a loved one's grave to say the few prayers before the big game. I was up visiting my parents' grave during the Leaving and Junior Cert exams. I was there to ask for help. The pale students were the walking worried. That Leaving is pure torture.

Ireland drew the figure of 8 in Soldier Field. Axel was more powerful than the Haka on that famous day when we finally beat The All Blacks after 111 years of losing.

Soccer teams tried to buy success and failed. Neil Diamond sings "money talks, but it don't sing and dance". And there's no dance to compare to the Haka.

Heroes

The Lions tried so hard in Eden Park and you could see what the jersey meant to these individual players who came from four different countries. The Lions have only six weeks to come together as one. They had been told of the days of yore and had seen the archives of the heroes of old. But the Lions' yore is relatively new.

I believe getting picked for the Lions is more about the sense of personal achievement and while this is also the case for the New Zealanders, their structured spirituality with roots going back to history's dawn chorus is handed over with the black jersey.

The All Blacks are the greatest rugby nation. Their skills and intellect set them apart. The young boys take the rugby ball everywhere. Little hands are trained to be surgeons, card dealers and circus jugglers. These boys could sew in a shirt button wearing boxing gloves. The tactic of not dropping the ball was another big reason why the All Blacks won the first Test in Eden Park.

Warren Gatland was given a very difficult task. He went with the form players from recent weeks. This was a mistake. Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton know how to nearly beat and beat the All Blacks.

Owen Farrell is a fine player and an honest lad who is well on his way to greatness, but he is not first-choice fly-half for his country. He probably needs a little more time before he can run the game as a 10 at the highest level, but is still capable of doing a big job on tour.

A few weeks back Gatland said the Lions didn't put Sexton and Farrell together in practice. I presume this is still the case. Rugby is more structured than any other game and Farrell was playing behind a beaten pack who, for all their honesty, lacked quick thinking and quick running.

There is too much travelling in this tour and not enough time for practice. Gatland had to use the games for on-the-job training. He has been very fair. Every player was given a chance, but surely he knew who was good enough before the plane left.

The English media, and Sky Sports in particular, mounted a massive campaign to have Farrell start at 10. I have no doubt that their motives were honourable. The facts are that Sexton was the playmaker when Ireland stopped England winning the Grand Slam and when we won in Chicago.

Most of the sports commentators in print and TV somehow seemed to forget this line of recent enough form and focused instead on the first game of the tour, when Sexton hardly knew his own name just three days after coming off the plane. England were desperately in need of a Lions' hero. Gatland and his staff just had to be influenced. The flock led the shepherd.

For the most part, though, the Sky coverage has been full of passion, humour and respect. There was a wonderful documentary on New Zealand rugby and my favourite piece was when Beauden Barrett's farmer father Kevin drank a mug of new milk, fresh from the tank.

Kevin was thirsty on the morning after the night his boy Beaudie brought home the World Cup to a small country place. My friend and team-mate Tim Kennelly drank milk from his dad Mikey's fat Friesians. His cup was the Sam. And, yes, Kevin Barrett's mug was the Webb Ellis World Cup.

Close

I'm Jonathan Sexton's godfather and let the record show I did not discuss this piece with him. He is close to Owen Farrell and his dad Andy.

Sexton and Murray will make sure the Lions bus pulls up at all the stops. The Lions need to take little rests. The All Blacks go from 0-60 immediately. There is no delaying or waiting for the game to happen.

And the Lions need a good referee. Pernickety Peyper missed a yellow for a late tackle on Conor Murray at a crucial stage in the first Test. He wouldn't spot a crime in Dodge City on cowboy pay day.

But most of all the Lions need luck and sticky hands. There is hope. The Lions have courage. Gatland specialises in fightbacks. He is a learner and a listener. The Lions do have a chance, but everything must go right in the mighty jungle.

Set the clock. Forget about the lie-in. Next Saturday morning and the second Test will be breakfast TV at its very best.

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