Sunday 22 April 2018

Neil Francis: Rejoice! Beating the odds in NZ a cause for celebration

Resilient tourists can take pride in sharing spoils with a side that will see result as a major failure

British and Irish Lions' Sam Warburton and New Zealand's Kieran Read lift the Series Trophy after the series is drawn during the third test of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour at Eden Park, Auckland. Photo: PA Wire
British and Irish Lions' Sam Warburton and New Zealand's Kieran Read lift the Series Trophy after the series is drawn during the third test of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour at Eden Park, Auckland. Photo: PA Wire
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

If you are looking for direction or wondering how you should feel this morning after the series was drawn yesterday - rejoice! The All Blacks expected to win the series 3-0 - be happy! The All Blacks should have won yesterday but regressed due to a feral combination of courage and resilience from their opponents - celebrate! The All Blacks have not lost a Test match in Eden Park since 1994, so a draw there is just cause to be happy.

Maybe we can borrow from Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade: "They that had fought so well, came through the jaws of death, back from the mouth of hell." Going into the double world champions' back yard and coming away with a share of the spoils, when the underdog confounds the considerable odds. . . I reason that victory is theirs.

Nobody is happy with a stalemate; it's not a conclusion. In sport there has to be something definitive when the contest is over.

Happiness, as it was explained to me the other day, is observing a tanned, muscular lifeguard on the beach being watched by all the girls leave the beach hand in hand with another tanned, muscular lifeguard.

The Lions fans can be happier than the New Zealand fans, who left Eden Park with indecent haste after the final whistle. The beers being drunk by the Lions will taste far sweeter. The Kiwi fans may ruefully look at each other and say: "this beer tastes stale, mate".

Steve Hansen will be talking back to his Rice Krispies this morning. Privately, this will be considered a failure. Aspirations of a 3-0 sweep would have been large on his list of priorities. A 2-1 victory in the series was an absolute minimum. A shared series is failure and that will be hard for him to reconcile.

Intellectually, and as a rugby pioneer, he would have considered himself to be streets ahead of Warren Gatland. His coaching ticket are also deep thinkers, and they have brought the game forward in quantum leaps. The only regret from the neutrals' perspective was that the guys trying to play with tempo and notions of expansion did not win the day.

The other losers on this day are the Nigel Wrays of this world, who based on events over the last six weeks won't get their wish for an extra month of the Aviva Premiership in June instead of a Lions tour in the future.

Hansen must also look over at Pieter de Villiers, the former South African coach, who incredibly has a series win over the Lions . . . there is no justice in this world.

It is prudent to look back at the famine years of All Black rugby after they won the inaugural World Cup in 1987. Underperformance in 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007. Twenty years is a long time to go without a World Cup for a team that has been the best on the planet for the last 100 years.

Every time they lost in those five World Cups they were favourites to win but they were faced with teams who had respect for them but no respect for their own bodies. The critical quality here was that none of the teams that beat them were afraid of them. The All Blacks found that when they got hit hard and hit often, they were just human like the rest of us.

We use Thierry Dusautoir's 40 tackles in that incredible quarter-final in Cardiff in 2007 as a reference point. It is a weakness of All Black sides that they find it difficult when things are going against them and they have pressure put on them, which they do not expect and don't deal with competently.

Yesterday, they scored three points in the second half in Eden Park. That is deemed failure by anybody who observes the constitution of an All Black. Dry throat and the inability to deal with a limited but very determined opponent. Last week they were held try-less in Wellington; that is failure too.

The Lions showed resilience and a resoluteness which superseded any lack of talent.

Oscar Wilde, not a rugby player by any means, said "consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative". The Lions were far from perfect yesterday but they held their nerve and they kept going. They tried to play a little bit but were predictable and inaccurate when it counted most. The slippy ball did not help them, nor the All Blacks.

If ever the will of the Lions could be personified, you could not look any further than Welsh centre Jonathan Davies. On Saturday, February 11, 2017, coming up to 7pm, Davies produced one of the worst kicks in rugby history. England's George Ford gathered the ball and two quality passes later Elliot Daly scored in the left corner to win the game at the death.

Hard to recover from that sort of trauma. Davies stuck to his task and rediscovered himself and some form and he won the PRO12 Championship in May playing some sparkling rugby with the Scarlets.

You may pooh-pooh the PRO12 but it is important to note that there were a dozen PRO12 players who took to the field yesterday in Eden Park.

The All Blacks had at least six clear try-scoring chances in the first half alone, but only took two. If they had been a little bit more clinical they could have sailed away into the distance. Julian Savea, well short of Test match condition or form, took his eyes off the ball in the fourth minute on a run-in try. All he had to do was catch it the way he normally does.

The Lions rode their luck and managed to launch an attack of their own in the 12th minute. It was probably their best attack of the day and they went 15 phases and were five metres from the All Black line going from left to right. Owen Farrell tried to reach Anthony Watson with a looping cut-out pass; it was a clumsy attempt and Beauden Barrett read it with his eyes closed.

Barrett, as we know, is one of the quickest players in world rugby. The mechanics of stretching for the intercept, taking the ball from a standing start and then tucking the ball under his left arm to ready himself for the fend proved his undoing. That permitted Liam Williams, who was the player being skipped, to turn and chase the All Black out-half, who hadn't reached optimal speed in time. Williams brilliantly caught him with a fingertip tackle around the ankles. Another metre or two and Barrett would have been in under the sticks.

At this stage Davies was standing five metres away from the All Black posts; 90 metres away he would make the tackle that would save the series. As Barrett was caught, Anton Lienert-Brown charged onto the offload and he was gone. The All Black centre had come directly from behind the play. Davies was 20 metres further infield.

The square of the hypotenuse . . . well, Pythagoras would not have given him good odds on catching the speedy Lienert-Brown. Davies showed an admirable determination to chase him down. Not known for his searing pace, Davies got him 12 metres before the line. The only thought in his mind was the sanctity of his try-line brought about by the self-belief in this Lions squad. They were not to be beaten.

Davies put in a number of telling tackles - two on Jordie Barrett at vital moments. For me, Davies was the Lions' player of the series. You can point to a number of other players, you can point also to the clever 9-10-12 axis that negotiated the Lions through this series. But Davies is also a very clever player, and a combination of cleverness and determination is a very difficult obstacle to overcome.

The All Blacks did not have the same potency or fluency in the second half and spent much of the last quarter prodding the ball through looking for favourable field position and hoping to nail a penalty chance. As we knew he always would, Romain Poite made a crucial intervention in the last two minutes.

My view is that after consultation and review the correct decision was made on Ken Owens's accidental offside. The Welshman did catch the ball but realised a millisecond too late what he had done and dropped it. The rule here is that he did not prevent any All Black advantage and nobody could say who would have gathered the ball quicker if it had gone loose or not touched the Lions hooker. Poite, in his forensic deliberations, left his alter ego Clouseau behind and came out with the right finding on the case.

In that position on the field, with the series on the line with a minute left to play, this would have been no routine kick for Beauden Barrett.

The All Blacks were unquestionably the more skilful side over the series but just not good enough when it was there for them, and the Lions showed unflinching courage to share the series. They can justifiably claim more than the bragging rights. Every man, woman and child in New Zealand will view the inability to win the series as a failure. Ergo . . .

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