Sunday 18 February 2018

Neil Francis: Over two months on from the Lions tour we once again have to ask - is Gatland lucky or is he just good?

Tourists rode their luck in New Zealand to benefit from Sonny Bill’s sending-off

8 July 2017; British and Irish Lions manager head coach Warren Gatland ahead of the Third Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
8 July 2017; British and Irish Lions manager head coach Warren Gatland ahead of the Third Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Time, I always thought, was a great facilitator. I thought now we might try and get some perspective on the Lions tour. The circus folded tents over two-and-a-half months ago and we are all struggling for cause and effect after a drawn series.

After the Lions brand itself, head coach Warren Gatland was the biggest beneficiary during the summer. Wazza is now undefeated in two Test series' and the mythical Cheshire Cats look like they are scowling beside Gatland's beaming smile. Not for the first time do we have to ask the question - is he lucky or is he just good?

The Lions were thumped in the first Test. Thirty points didn't really do justice to the All Blacks and they slowed up, leaking a few tries which made the scoreline respectable. The second Test was a tight game and was shaping up to be a competitive match, but things happen in sport at the highest level that are unprecedented and unexplainable. In Test match history on the islands of New Zealand there would have been 12 players sent off since the 19th century - not one of them was an All Black.

Sonny Bill Williams, you would have thought, had a better chance of scoring a hat-trick than he had of being sent off but he managed to become the first All Black sent from the field in 50 years. The 24th minute of the game arrived and New Zealand had been patient and you sensed would latch on to moment's of weakness from the Lions and would inexorably start a score-building process.

Instead, Sonny Bill put his shoulder into Anthony Watson's face at full speed. Some people could argue that it wasn't a straight red … from the comfort of their padded cell.

Wazza, 50 metres from the incident, had, like the kid selling hot dogs 10 metres away, no control over events on the field at that moment in time yet he and his team would benefit hugely from that moment. It was the moment that changed the series. The All Blacks down to 14 men brought on an extra back and brought their pack down to seven men. They were 18-9 up in the 60th minute but ran out of juice up front in the last 20 to lose the second game 21-24.

Sonny Bill, if he had not tried to deconstruct Watson's skull and stayed on, could have been the player of the series. This game was always going to be tight and great players like Williams always conspire to make the difference. If he had stayed on the pitch, New Zealand would have won the second Test.

Wazza can also thank his lucky stars the way the refereeing roster fell in the games - Jaco Peyper may not have sent Sonny Bill off if he had officiated the second Test. Jerome Garces would not have changed his mind on the Kieran Read/Ken Owens accidental offside decision in the third Test. Romain Poite awarded nine penalties to five against New Zealand in the third Test. The home side never concedes a penalty count of nearly two to one against in a serious Test match. Don't think that would have happened under Peyper's watch.

Another factor of selection which did not go in the All Blacks' favour was the mix in their midfield. Over the last 20 years Aaron Mauger and then Conrad Smith have been the catalysts for things to happen. Very, very intelligent players who have the brain power to organise those around them and put them into positions of advantage. Ryan Crotty was their new 'thinker' in midfield and he was not available due to injury. A huge loss. Dane Coles was a loss too. All said they were strong favourites to win the series 3-0 and they failed to press home the advantages that they had.

On the basis that the All Blacks have been practically unbeatable in New Zealand for the last 10 years or so, for the Lions to go down there and man up to the challenge in such time that they had with a composite team - you must adjudge their performance correctly - by any standards they are the winners. No other team would have got that set of results. It is a marker for Japan.

Seán O'Brien's comment was interesting during the week. I have always considered it a sign of weakness if a coach over-trains a side, particularly in the lead-up to an important match. Any international who reflects on his career could count on his fingers the amount of times he has bounded onto the park feeling as fresh as a daisy. Only the great coaches can resist it - flogging their players before the big game. Gatland has other strengths though and he made a decision which got very little airtime on this side of the pond. Peter O'Mahony was installed as captain for the first test. The press pack here and in New Zealand decreed that it was a great choice and that the qualities he would bring was precisely what the Lions needed.

O'Mahony was substituted in the 54th minute of the first Test on June 24 and did not play a second of rugby on tour after that moment. The tour ended on July 8 - that is a long time to stew and not be able to do anything about it. One minute O'Mahony is the Lions captain and 'the man' but the next he is holding the tackling bags. Life in professional sport is pretty tough. Gatland has in the past made these sensational calls. O'Mahony we know has the depth of character and conviction to recover from the fall.

As for all his Irish confreres who will all be coming back on stream in the next week or so - we will keep a Lions watch on their progress throughout the season. It is difficult to get back up to speed after an 'ultimate event' and their ability to avoid mental fatigue and injury will provide many column inches. They are all lucky to have the IRFU as employers. October 7 is a serious but absolutely necessary rest.

Meanwhile, Premiership players were on duty on September 1. Saracens played Northampton and Courtney Lawes was going at it hammer and tongs with Maro Itoje and George Kruis. It is incredible how much the Premiership elite get flogged. They play at least 32 games a year. The Irish Elite about early 20s. The NFL play 16 matches in the regular season.

Burnout is particularly noticeable the season after a tour. The feel-good factor has already dissipated as the slog begins. September 1, sheeesh. "Player welfare is of paramount importance" as they say in Blazeratti.

Irish Independent

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