Tuesday 21 November 2017

Neil Francis: Dunkirk spirit could derail Kiwis' ruthless war machine

All Blacks keep pushing boundaries but they have not faced opponents as resilient as these Lions

Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Sam Cane during New Zealand’s victory over Ireland last year and the All Blacks are likely to be similarly aggressive when facing the Lions on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Sam Cane during New Zealand’s victory over Ireland last year and the All Blacks are likely to be similarly aggressive when facing the Lions on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Funny how you react to adversity: it is character-defining in the great moments of crisis. We might need to look back in history to get an idea of what is going to happen on Saturday - this Saturday only mind!

In May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was being annihilated by the Wehrmacht in Belgium and France; they were routed and chased all the way to Dunkirk.

But there is no other way to see it but as a victory: to get in excess of 300,000 soldiers out of France was a miracle. The BEF would form the basis of the empire's conventional forces for the rest of the war - that escape was an imperative when it came to final victory.

Why had it become such a rout? Blitzkrieg! The Germans were militarily one step ahead at that time and used air power in a different way. They would fly ahead of their fast-moving panzer divisions and bomb or strafe any fixed defensive position in the path of their tanks.

Defences would not have had time to recover before these fast-moving tank divisions moved in, and ranked closely behind were infantry divisions that also moved at bewildering speed. The engagement would often be over before it started. The British and French, in fixed positions and often on horseback, never had a chance.

It was a new form of engagement, a style of war that conventional military thinking couldn't even deal with. Change happens when someone else sees the next step.

The Germans were ruthless in every regard. Some of the war crimes of that campaign live in infamy to this day. The massacres of Wormhoudt and Le Paradis still rankle. Prisoners of war were rounded up and machine-gunned to death. It was the new standard in warfare: no prisoners meant no prisoners. There were no rules of war, no referee, no Geneva Convention, and one side was prepared to do anything to fulfil its goal.

The BEF, surrounded on all sides and contemplating a grand and bitter surrender, got an incredible lifeline as the Germans received a 'halt' order from Berlin. If they had followed through to the port, the war was probably over.

Instead, the legend of the flotilla coming across the channel was born as the BEF got most of their survivors away in the five or six days that were left as the Germans inexplicably sat outside on the outskirts. Why, when the Germans had the jackboot placed over the Allies' throats, didn't they take advantage?

Maybe the ease of victory, the brilliance of their coordination and gusto while charging through France and the knowledge that strategically their opponents were light years behind them in the new theatre of warfare left them complacent and they relented.

The Brits, back in Blighty, had a good few years to think about how to deal with the new code and terms of war, and contemplate how to come to terms with the murderous brutality of the new masters of Europe.

How quickly things had changed from trench warfare to this in the space of just 22 years. When they re-engaged in June 1944, it was a very different army that landed back in France. Even the Yanks had to learn. They would have to think and act differently to win.

And so the war continues on the rugby front, and in the 2011 and 2015 campaigns the New Zealand All Blacks have won all round them employing a form of engagement that few can match.

The Lions' ignominious series defeat in 2005 still hurts 12 years on. We get to find out whether we are fit to challenge and whether there is merit in our system of values. That team on Saturday represents us all in this corner of the world.

Whatever they do or attempt to do, there can be no room for self-doubt because their opponents have shown over a century the sort of resilience and constancy of purpose that is incredibly hard to sustain over such a long period. Standards of consistent excellence pitched at such a high level that we really can only marvel at.

The All Blacks have a patent on reinvention and pushing boundaries in this team sport and they never, it seems, rest on their laurels. Marvin Hagler summed it up best about the problems of success and longevity: "It's tough to get out of bed to do the roadwork at 5.0 in the morning when you've been sleeping in silk pyjamas."

Such is the desire of the All Blacks that they rarely let success cloud their vision. It is tough to maintain perfectionism or the continuity of winning.

In the last Rugby Championship the All Blacks won all of their matches - home and away - with bonus points and a record number of tries scored. Peerless? A repetition of affirmation?

We look to see how good that really is, though. Their perennial rivals Australia and South Africa have fallen off a cliff in terms of performance and quality. We see it in the Super 18, where the Australian and South African franchises are regularly having 60 points put on them by New Zealand clubs.

Are the Kiwis that good or are the others falling back at a rate of knots? Suddenly in the space of three weeks the realisation hits us that the only team that can now trouble New Zealand are the Lions. These tourists would easily sweep the series in South Africa or Australia.

It is what makes this series so intriguing and compelling: what sort of a response will it elicit from the world champions, who have only had a real challenge put to them in the last two years by, well, Ireland?

You are probably sensing that I think the Lions have a good chance on Saturday. They have a binary, one-dimensional game-plan, but so many of the Test side have had to sit back, bide their time and learn how it is and what it takes to beat the All Blacks - and beat them at home.

Ruthlessness

And so they will be well prepared, well structured, as fit if not fitter than New Zealand, and they will be competitive in all phases and in all areas of the field. They will not lack courage, but the quality they will need the most is that of ruthlessness.

To win the series the Lions must be ruthless - no prisoners means no prisoners.

In an interview during the week, All Blacks skipper Kieran Read put on record what New Zealand needed to do in Dublin after losing to Ireland in Chicago. In that second game, they were prepared to do whatever it took to win.

In many instances they went beyond the laws of the game. It was a dark and cynical performance. They were ruthless and there were no prisoners taken that day.

Read's interview could be seen as a confession. I see it as reaffirmation of creed. The All Blacks will do what they have to do to win this series. The only way the Lions will compete is to match them in this area. No prisoners.

A test at the very highest level. A defensive opus and a state of mind not seen heretofore from northern hemisphere players, and all possibilities are alive. "He conquers who endures."

Irish Independent

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