Wednesday 18 September 2019

Neil Francis: I will kneel at the altar of over-achiever Gatland if his Lions get result against All Blacks

New Zealand's Julian Savea
New Zealand's Julian Savea
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On July 8, 2017, the All Blacks will complete a 3-0 whitewash of Warren Gatland's overhyped and out-played Lions.

In the immediate aftermath some of the media present will pen pieces stating that the gap between the two sides is not all that much and in fact that, if their aunties had. . . you get the rest.

The New Zealand press won't be doing any 'what ifs' and neither will I. What we will be concentrating on in the 20-month lead-up to the tour is whether we can come up with a 36-man squad remotely good enough to not only challenge the All Blacks but challenge themselves to change the way they play so that they can at the very least be competitive.

In fairness to Wazza, the Miracles Commission at the Vatican are looking into some of the victories he has pulled off over his career - if he can get a Lions team even remotely close to the All Blacks, I will kneel at the altar of Saint Wazza the over-achiever.

It's true that New Zealand will be without Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Jerome Kaino, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and a few other pension-seekers.

When New Zealand tour the Northern Hemisphere next November, they will bring on the hordes of U-20 World Cup winners and throw 20/21-year-old superstars into the mix and still win all around them.


Is it really worthwhile going? Apart from the grasping money and merchandising opportunities, our best players also want the opportunity to play in the red jersey.

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I will give you 10/1 on 3-0 series - any takers? Twenty months of preparation? We need 20 years.

The scorelines in 2005? 21-3, 48-18 and 38-18, with the home side pulling up in all three matches.

The 2005 Lions had a pretty good roster but the lack of quality among the home nations now tells you everything in the sense that Wales will once again dominate the Test team.

England just won't produce quality replacement players for the top-class performers they will lose immediately after the World Cup.

The bigger picture really is to try and infuse a type of game which will challenge New Zealand.

It can't possibly come through a challenge by the Lions because that composite selection meets only a couple of times before the real squad is picked and then they have three weeks to get pattern and a game-plan.

Everyone is so geared towards going forward with their own country to even countenance a thought about New Zealand.

The All Blacks will be missing some stars but they will be just as good and certainly too good for the Lions.

Whether they will win on Saturday is quite open to debate. They were not quite as good as they seemed in the quarter-finals because, well, France were like a giant can of oui-oui.

Equally they were not quite a bad as their subdued performance against South Africa last Saturday in Twickenham would suggest.

Before we begin, I would like to make it obvious that I am not an apologist for the All Blacks but, when it comes to who takes the pot home on Saturday, more than anything I think it is important that the side that attempts to play rugby the way it should be played deserves to win.

I never thought I'd see myself say this, but rugby will be the winner if New Zealand's all-court game triumphs. They do play brilliant rugby - sustained brilliance.

New Zealand struggled in the semi-final for two reasons. One was because the Boks don't lie down and die for anyone. You have to admire the South Africans for their desire and warrior code, they just don't give up.

The second reason the All Blacks struggled goes down to referee Jerome Garces. Some commentators in the press thought he had a fine game; I just cannot concur with that notion.

Here is my understanding of how the game of rugby union is played:

It is a simple game and the principles haven't changed that much in over a hundred years. You win ball at the set-piece. With that ball, you apply pressure by running, passing or kicking the ball.

The better sides always try to retain the ball in hand when applying pressure. The opposition either concede territory, penalties or tries. It is that simple.

New Zealand had 60pc possession and nearly 70pc territory. They nicked five South African lineouts, ran the ball 387 metres to South Africa's 149 and astonishingly missed only three tackles all day compared to the 20 missed by the Boks.

South Africa never threatened the All Black line once and were limited to the point of predictability yet there was only two points between the teams.

There is no other team game in the world besides rugby union that is held hostage by the peccadillos and peculiarities of the referee.

Garces is a decent referee but the penalty count of 14-6 against New Zealand is irreconcilable to the core values of how the game is played.

A penalty count of 14-6 against South Africa would seem to be appropriate on the run of play and the way the stats went. If South Africa conceded 12 penalties against Japan, how come they only conceded six against a side that would be immeasurably superior to the Brave Blossoms?

New Zealand did give an undisciplined performance in many regards and a lot of the penalties that were awarded against them were indeed justified - but some of them were not and I thought South Africa got away with murder on the gain-line all day and at the breakdown.

South Africa get into New Zealand's territory six times and get six kickable penalties. New Zealand spend the day camped in South African territory with their opposition under all sorts of pressure and only get two kickable penalties.

I think Nigel Owens will referee both sides on Saturday and will make it an entertaining contest. He will be challenged, particularly at the breakdown, where it will be a game of bluff and double bluff.

The intuition and smarter application here particularly by the back-rows will be telling. Sometimes holding back will be the best thing to do - how many cards for rolling an opponent above the neck?

New Zealand won last Saturday because both Springbok wingers were asleep at the wheel. JP Pietersen's positioning for Beauden Barrett's try was something a 12-year-old winger would have trials of conscience about for years.

What we will have on Saturday is a genuine contest. Two very smart sides - undoubtedly the best two in the tournament - are in the final.

The great thing about Australia is that not only do they not fear New Zealand; they also know that they can take them.

The New Zealand back-row, and Kieran Read in particular, hasn't played even close to their potential.


If that situation continues then they will lose the breakdown and probably the match. But if the New Zealand pack get on top in the second half, Australia will not be able to control the pace of the game off the back foot.

If Dan Carter and Aaron Smith are allowed unrestricted channels to control the pace of the game, that will be that.

New Zealand have this amazing facility to recover themselves from a subdued or poor performance.

Australia are unlucky that the chances of a bushwhack are remote. But a two-point victory against the Boks will only serve to strengthen resolve and improve efficiency next time round

This could be a game they talk about for a long time.

Steve Hansen will have to be very good to outwit the Lebanese Grump-meister.

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