I needed to mull on that a while, the third test and the series as a whole. Looking back, it was a phenomenal achievement to have drawn it. Effectively, it took a sending off in the second test and a bad call at the end of the third for the Lions to even scrape a draw. Any Kiwi will admit the All Blacks weren’t clinical, an honest one will tell you they bottled it. You get a shot at the Lion once every 12 years, they wounded but uncharacteristically failed to kill. The series swung after Sonny Bill’s red card. Garces’ decisiveness can’t be faltered but it’s Poite’s interpretation of the accidental offside in the last few minutes of the third test that will fuel the opinionated New Zealander for the next 12 years. Wayne Barnes will perhaps now get a reprieve from his status as public enemy number one in the aftermath of the 2007 RWC quarter final v France. Believe me, they still don’t forgive him.
I was disappointed with the All Blacks over the whole series. This All Black team was supposed to have transcended the realms of International rugby but we just didn’t see the stretching-the-field interlinking forward play that saw them cruise through 2016. The new hybrid rugby system where numbers 1 – 15 showed an appreciation and understanding of how to create and exploit space was nowhere to be seen. In short, they underperformed.
How did the Lions draw that series?
Defence courtesy of Andy Farrell – The Lions conceded only five tries over the three tests. It was the biggest factor in drawing the series. An aggressive line speed and ferocity orchestrated by Farrell Snr has to be acknowledged. The All Blacks had the majority of possession in all three tests. To hold them to five tries was imperative to achieving parity.
All Black Inaccuracies – The All Blacks were clinical and opportunistic in Eden Park the first day out but missed kicks gifted the Lions a win in game two while dropped balls and more errand kicking allowed the Lions to snatch a draw on their return to Eden. The All Blacks even looked mortal. There isn’t as big a gap at the top of world rugby as once imagined perhaps?
Blessed French referees – Serious cojones shown by Garces in the second test when his touch judges and video ref were searching for theirs. The right call, mes compliments. Romain Poite could referee in Croke Park, the GAA would love that sort of discretional decision making towards the end of games. There’d be replays every Sunday! Without those two decisions, it’s 3-0 All Blacks.
Arnold Palmer and choosing the right club
I can’t give enough credit to Owen Farrell for slotting those kicks. On the biggest occasion, in the dying moments of the second and third tests, he delivered. And they were not easy! Now, I wasn’t happy with his game on the final day, he had some really poor errors, but to his credit it didn’t affect his mindset when he took those shots at goal. I never thought I’d warm to seeing those creepy eyes trace the invisible line between the sticks. Ice in his veins! And how about bringing Happy Glmore out for the long one. Take a bow Elliot Daly; to be that accurate from that distance is so so difficult! Contrast the Lions proficiency with the boot to poor Beauden Barrett. Yikes. The Lions were seriously let off the hook in the second and third tests. Arnold Palmer once said “putting is like wisdom – partly a natural gift and partly the accumulation of experience.” I’d say the same of goal kicking, at times it takes as much tinkering as a golfer’s swing. You account for surface, weather, distance, and still can go wrong with the strike. If Barrett’s Lions series was a putt, he left a 6 footer 3 feet short. He’ll just have to chalk it down to experience.
The New Zealand media have fallen in love with the Hurricanes fly half, not only drawing comparisons to Daniel Carter, but even suggesting superiority! Well now they can shush! I remember I made an outlandish statement once, I was adamant Richard Gasquet would win Wimbledon before Rafael Nadal. We all have things we regret saying is my point! The simple truth of the matter is that if Aaron Cruden had started all three tests, the All Blacks would have won comfortably and not just because of his more reliable goal kicking. Comparing Cruden and Barrett is like deciding between Sexton or Farrell. Barrett has the skills, the pace, he’s a superb player. He ticks more boxes than Cruden. The same can be said of Farrell over Sexton. Kicking, form, defence for example, all in Farrell’s favour. Yet, Cruden and Sexton are the better out halves. They are better decision makers, game managers and leaders. Hence why Sexton started the second and third tests despite the form of Te’o. The results are evident. Gatland made the wise choice (eventually). I couldn’t believe Barrett started the third test at out half. With his inclusion I was actually confident of a Lions win. To me, it made all the sense in the world to put Beauden to full back and bring in Cruden to ten. The All Blacks had played their best rugby when Cruden was introduced in the first test, he could have taken the kicking duties and freed up Beauden to run riot at full back. Steve Hanson however, stuck with Barrett at ten and will now rue a missed opportuntiy to put the gloss on a spectacular coaching resume. The moral of the story is that your best player might not be your best option at out half. Lions recognised this, New Zealand are left wondering.