The 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand has come to a close with a slightly anti-climactic 15-all draw in the final test. I think we would all have liked to see that match go the distance and into extra-time to give us a true conclusion, but given everyone was expecting to see the Lions beaten 3-0 (and emphatically so), a drawn series is still a hugely impressive result.
Now the dust has settled, what has this year’s tour taught us?
The All Blacks are beatable
The most dominant side in international sport, winners of the last two World Cups and a conveyor belt of world-class players mean the All Blacks are rightly lauded as the best-of-the-best. What this Lions series has done, however, has revealed a few chinks in their armour and offered hope to other countries that come the 2019 World Cup in Japan, it is not a foregone conclusion that New Zealand will walk away with a third successive title.
Beauden Barrett’s troubles from the tee have shown, that for all his prowess with ball in hand, he is not yet the complete player that Dan Carter was. New Zealand left eminently kickable points on the field, points that could have won them both the last two tests. The thinking with Barrett is that even if he misses a few three-pointers, he will give you tries. Well the Lions defence was so fierce it nullified the fly-half’s running game, which left New Zealand trading three-pointers for… well nothing. They brought his brother Jordie into the side for the third test and I expected him to be handed the kicking duties – that never transpired and the situation will dominate much of Steve Hansen’s thinking in the coming months.
Just as Barrett is not quite Carter, the midfield options replacing the retired Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have yet to successfully plug the hole. The Lions player of the series, Jonathan Davies, made a series of breaks and found space in the outside channel, while Sonny Bill Williams had his brain-fade red card and Ngani Laumape struggled to keep his defensive shape.
Similarly with the back three. With Ben Smith out, Hansen couldn’t decide whether he wanted Israel Dagg on the wing or at fullback, whether he wanted the pace of Rieko Ioane or the physicality of Julian Savea, while Waisake Naholo was brought in and then discarded for the next game. No one, beyond Smith, has yet nailed his place in the team.
As always, there is a surfeit of talented young players available to the Kiwis. But they are not quite the finished product yet; they make mistakes and if teams are prepared to take the All Blacks on, their is opportunity to exploit that inexperience. The hundreds of caps lost when the core group of Richie McCaw, Carter, Nonu and Smith retired after the 2015 World Cup could be more costly than initially thought.
The Lions also showed it is possible to get under New Zealand’s skin. The Kiwis always tread that fine line of physicality, but this at times boiled over – Williams’ red card, Jerome Kaino’s yellow, while a number of uncharacteristic handling errors cost them tries they usually finish in their sleep. The template for beating the best has been shown.
The north has world-class players
There is a quirk of the media (and it is a particular favourite of Sir Clive Woodward) that whenever the northern hemisphere sides do well, they ask ‘this is all very well, but how many of the English/Welsh/Irish/Scottish players would get into the All Blacks team?’
Well, on this evidence quite a few. New Zealand would probably bite your hand off right now if you offered them Jonathan Davies, while Sean O’Brien (my player of the series), Maro Itoje, Connor Murray, Owen Farrell, Tadhg Furlong and Sam Warburton, to name just a few, all have a case to make a theoretical world XV.
That is not to mention a handful of names injured, like Billy Vunipola and Stuart Hogg, or out of form but we know they can be great, like Robbie Henshaw and George North. The future is looking bright for the home nations.
Did England miss a trick with Andy Farrell?
Andy Farrell now has three wins and a draw against New Zealand on his CV. Part of Stuart Lancaster’s team for England’s 2012 victory, Joe Schmidt’s for Ireland’s 2016 Chicago triumph, and now on his second Lions tour, the architect behind the suffocating press which neutered the Kiwis’ attacking abilities. He is the common denominator in every northern hemisphere victory over the All Blacks in the past five years.
While a clear out of the coaching staff was correct after England’s 2015 World Cup debacle, and there were unverified claims that an imbalance of power held by Farrell was part of the reason the coaching team’s game plan appeared muddled, Farrell has shown once again he is a brilliant defensive coach. Jones, quite rightly, was afforded the right to bring in his own team when appointed England coach but you can’t help wondering if ditching Farrell was the correct call.
Paul Gustard did brilliantly with Saracens before he became the national side’s defence coach, and while England’s record-equalling winning run means it may seem churlish to criticise, their defence has been far from watertight. This is partly a debt from a more expansive and aggressive attacking game – like New Zealand’s decision with Barrett, England have decided that scoring more tries is the best way to win games. However, and let’s not forget Ireland’s victory over England in this year’s Six Nations, this Lions tour asks whether ditching Farrell senior may come back to bite England.
Offside law needs a review
High-profile games also mean the rules and referees get far more attention, and the final minutes of the third test have led to a lot of debate.
Ken Owens’ offside catch. Was it a penalty? My opinion: yes. Sorry guys, and I hate to a criticise a referee (especially as a Lions fan given the result), but I thought Romain Poite bottled it. Well played Sam Warburton for having a quiet word, and maybe Craig Joubert’s Scotland/Australia clanger was playing on Poite’s mind, but in my view, according to the current consistently applied interpretation of the laws of the game that was a penalty. The ball didn’t just unavoidably hit Owens, he saw it coming and caught it, before realising his mistake and dropping the ball.
However, regardless of this individual decision, and many of you will disagree with me I am sure, what it does show is that this rule needs revisiting. It is such a strong instinct for players to catch a ball when it flies right at them, surely it is time for a bit of understanding and change the offence to result in a scrum irrespective? Think of it as basically an accidental forward pass. There is possibly the danger if that happens we could see a rash of deliberate obstruction following a knock-on to prevent the opposition gaining an advantage, so the other option would be to clarify what constitutes ‘deliberate playing of the ball’ – i.e. the player would have had to change direction akin to when players are judged to have blocked someone chasing a kick.
Either way, something needs to be done – it should not be the kind of offence that could have potentially dictated the outcome of such important matches twice in two years.
What are your thoughts on the Lions tour?
By Henry Ker