Thursday 22 February 2018

Famous victory a kiss of life for tour but locals are unlikely to repeat mistakes

Liam Williams of the British & Irish Lions following the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Liam Williams of the British & Irish Lions following the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If Harold Wilson had ever been on a Lions tour he never would have said what he said about the pace of political change over the course of seven days. Rather he would have declared the week leading up to the last Test, with the series already decided in favour of the home team, to be the longest shift imaginable. And nothing happens, bar gloating on one side and recrimination on the other.

So what happened yesterday in typically horrible Wellington weather is great news for all those involved, from players to punters to hacks. Auckland will be a lively place to be this week. Even for the Kiwis it's the result they may not have wanted, but the one they needed.

Much of the time on any Lions tour is spent debating the usefulness and relevance of the exercise itself. Given the power of the club game now in the northern hemisphere, this debate has taken legs. If you consider that PRL, the clubs' body in England, would like to sandwich the Six Nations into a tidy little lunchbox, you can imagine their views on a seven-week tour over which they have no control and which will leave the players exhausted ahead of the new season.

So if keeping the Lions alive is on your list of crusades then a result like this is an elixir. And more of the same on Saturday wouldn't be an insurance policy, rather it would give them Teflon coating. Which of course would be continued good news for the accountants in the unions of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, who have come to rely on this financial turbo boost to their coffers.

If the Lions were to be taken out of the equation the debate would shift to the Sanzaar nations wanting a cut of the gate receipts when they come up to Europe every November. So steady on lads. It's not a case of leaving well enough alone, for the restrictions on their preparation make every Lions tour a very long shot. Instead the clubs should be pressured into giving them more space.

So will PRL be cheering on the Lions in Eden Park on Saturday, where the All Blacks haven't lost since 1994 - a run of 35 games? Hmm, hardly. Though their discomfort is unlikely to be worsened by an historic series win for the tourists.

Firstly the chances are remote of New Zealand having to play three-quarters of the game this week with 14 men.

There are a few things worth noting from the dismissal of Sonny Bill Williams: credit to World Rugby for making these sort of challenges unacceptable; ditto to Jerome Garces for calling red when the easy thing to do would have been to go yellow; and the challenge itself was typical of a man who has spent much of his career in rugby league.

Secondly, even if Williams isn't available for Auckland, the All Blacks have almost everything running in their favour. They don't even have to add new and creative strings to their bow to win the series. Consider the way they got the upper hand initially yesterday, and then how they continued to dominate the game when reduced to 14.

In the 12th minute of a compelling contest - when they were still at full complement - they packed down to a scrum on the five-metre line, just inside their own half. First Aaron Smith took a few metres before offloading to Waisake Naholo; then Kieran Read made a big carry off the ruck; and next came Jerome Kaino off that second ruck, flattening Owen Farrell in the process. It gave them a handy 20-metre gain, and a penalty shot on goal.

Direct, unfussy and hugely effective, they were able to go back to this head-on tactic time and again.

The Lions will have discipline at the top of their agenda but a lot of their 13 penalties conceded came when they were reversing at speed - when it is hardest to stay onside, literally.

Credit to Steve Hansen and co, it must have been painful to withdraw Jerome Kaino from the contest but the power of their set-piece - more good news for this week - meant they needed to plug the hole in midfield. And Ngani Laumape was the ideal man.

The dilemma for Warren Gatland is how to try and stop this. If he goes with the Sexton/Farrell axis then the benefits he gets going forward are eroded by what happens when they don't have the ball. Ben Te'o certainly would be both a formidable tackler and carrier, but the Lions would lose a chunk of their kicking game.

Now, aren't we lucky that these ­decisions will have a material effect on who wins a series most of us thought would already be done and dusted?

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