Four Lessons From The Lions

All Blacks

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

34 thoughts on “Four Lessons From The Lions

  1. One little thing that always annoys me is, and I know it is there nickname, that New Zealand are always referred to as The All Blacks rather than New Zealand.

    It just adds this aurora to them and little things like this (along with the Haka), add a psychological edge sometimes, they are a great team but they are beatable and sometimes the focus is on how great they are rather than where there weaknesses lie.

    Yes Poite bottled it but even though The Lions are the best The North has to offer they are still essentially a scratch side and go to show, get the game plan right and New Zealand can be beaten.

    1. it’s not unique to use the nickname first… think Boks, Lions, Wallabies, Pumas…. But I will pick up on the Haka question and the edge it provides; as such my question is – Does the Haka have a place in World Cup games?
      To expand, one off test matches, touring games etc… it fits into the pageantry of the occasion in the same way a marching band does, but the World Cup is something different – are you providing one team a disadvantage? or am i being blasphemous?

      1. I only have 2 issues with the Haka.

        Firstly is the issue of teams responding to it. Everything I’ve ever read from the All Black’s, Kiwi fans and press is that they like it when a team responds to it, however World Rugby punish anyone who attempts to. That’s why I love the response to it at Twickenham, if the England team can’t respond at least the fans can sing over it.

        Secondly is the timing. In my mind doing it right before kick off gives the All Blacks a tiny advantage, not much but when fine margins count who knows it it could sway a game. I feel it’s only fair that on away games the home team get to do their anthem after the haka (or maybe have a coin toss decide it if the home team care that much). Again everything I’ve read suggests the All Blacks aren’t bothered about this (via statements etc) but in this case the one time a team got agreement to do this the players threw a strop and did the Haka in the changing room.

        1. Ten Ton Donut
          The ‘strop’ to which you refer was v Wales whom, on that occasion, refused to allow the AB’s, oops, NZ, to perform their haka before k.o. which had been & still is, customary. NZ, presumably a mite pissed off @ welsh chicanery, instead performed their Haka in the dressing room prior to taking the field. They got on with the match & duly thumped Wales by a cricket score. Might have been better for the Welsh to have left it to business as had been usual?

          1. Incorrect Don.

            The Welsh wanted to sing their national anthem after the haka as a ‘response’, as they had done the year previously.

            The All Blacks got all precious about it and refused, despite playing in Wales, not New Zealand, and in scenes reminscent of a teenager’s huff, performed it in the dressing room.

            “The tradition needs to be honoured properly if we’re going to do it. If the other team wants to mess around, we’ll just do the haka in the shed [changing room].” Said McCaw – to which my response would have been, that’s nice Richie, you go ahead and do that.

            This sense of entitlement in another country, in another team’s ground, is what irks me and others about the haka. It’s a fine bit of drama and theatre and it plays well to the crowd, but at the end of the day that’s all it is and the AB’s have no more right to do it than England do to do some kind of morris dance afterwards.

            What really gets my goat is the World Rugby stance on wrapping the haka in cotton wool and banning any kind of response. But then it brings attention I suppose and that will lost if every time another team wants to respond in their own manner on their own ground, the ABs do the adult equivalent of taking their ball away so no one else can play with it.

            Also why I love the Twickenham response. What can World Rugby do about the crowd singing so loudly it drowns the haka out? Just like the haka, and the best anthems (Welsh, Marseillaise) it raises the hackles

      2. You miss the point about the nickname ‘All Blacks’ is used too much in my opinion when they are New Zealand, thats all.

        1. Mr B
          PS & FYI I’m just as happy to have NZ referred as, er, NZ. I can’t speak for the AB’s of course, but I doubt that they’d be bothered either way. Probably have other things on their minds.

    2. Mr B
      As I recall it was the British press which 1st coined the term ‘All Blacks’ on the latter’s 1st tour here? I believe that they were originally reffed to as the ‘All Backs’, due to their playing style, but this morphed into the former moniker.
      The Haka is an established part of NZ/Maori/ rugby culture now & is surely now part of a game’s attraction when NZ play. It’s equivalent is perhaps that Negro spiritual or ‘Rule Britannia’ that England &/or it’s fans sometimes sing. If you’d attended the NZ v Argentina WC match in 2015, you’d have experienced what I mean. All teams are beatable, but for various reasons, NZ are less so than most, most of the time. And I’m unclear as to what weakness you refer. Perhaps, @ times, goal kicking? Whether the Lions are ‘essentially a scratch side’ or not, they still represent x4 ‘countries’ whose playing numbers still dwarf NZ’s @ only 7th in the world.

        1. Jake
          Be as sarcastic as you like, but it’s a ‘refreshing’ fact nevertheless. Would you rather have more or less numbers playing the game here? There are even less numbers in the SH these days due to the NH’s undermining the SH player bases with their spending power. It’s just not cricket. Talk about ‘rape of the Pacific’! Someone’s having a giraffe.

          1. Nothing refreshing about it.

            Sounds similar to what NZ have been doing to the Pacific Island nations for years. Anyway we don’t need to go into that.

            The significance of a scratch-side drawing with the ABs shouldn’t be overlooked. Yes they may have been lucky at times, but coming together 4 weeks prior and pulling that off…marvellous.

            1. Jake
              Can understand yr not ‘need(ing) to go into that’ as you Englanders can’t name these PI hoards… like Tui, Vuna x2, Hartley etc, etc. Talk pots & kettles. Yr ‘scratch’ side’s paymasters neg’ed this deal yonks ago. If they’ed played a bit better, they might have pulled of a ‘scratch won’ series.

              1. The playing numbers / population argument is irrelevant. What is enitrely relevant is that NZ’s system is solely geared towards the success and prosperity of the national team – aligned coaching, cross pollinated super franchises and total autonomy of Steve Hansen. Therefore every Super Rugby game is effectively a NZ training session. The upside to this is a dominant national team who thrill their own fans and in turn excite opposition fans at the prospect of facing them. Fantastic stuff. The downside is a club game which totally lacks the effervescence, crackle and partisanship of the Premiership, TOP 14 and Pro12.

                If all 12 English Premiership sides aligned to the common cause of red rose prosperity then the ‘population’ argument would stand up. However, rugby in our country relies on benefactors who run the clubs. The greatest challenge facing any coach from these shores is merging the tactics, cultures and playing styles of all these clubs to create a competitive national team. In the professional environment where familiarity is crucial to success, club players from (say) Saracens play an entirely different style of rugby to (say) Bath.

                As regards the Lions achievement, everyone knows the most prosperous and atmospheric competition outside of the RWC is the 6N’s. One only has to look at the partisanship of the stadium to realize that coaching The Lions to a draw in NZ was an incredible achievement.

                1. Good thoughts, SJW.

                  Arguably, it is more accurate to say that it is the senior clubs in this country who are reliant on the benefactors, not the game.

                  There is a chain of thought that would argue that the benefactors at the top level, have driven benefactors at lower levels, which drives more money into the game at the levels further down the pyramid, which ultimately erodes the game. far greater discussion here of course, and I do not disagree with your core points which highlight very well the differences between here and there.

              2. 1. Mils Muilami (spelt wrong probably) was PI.
                2. Tana Umaga was Samoan born
                3. Jonah Lomu was Tongan born (though grew up in NZ)
                I guess you can put any spin you want on each case. People seem to choose nowadays whether to go by geographical birth place or heritage/ancestry
                I for one could claim to be Irish, Scottish or English.

                1. Got two more here to add to tge list:
                  4. Joe Rokocoko is Fijian born (came over as a five yr old to NZ)
                  5. Joeli Vidiri is another Fijian who played for his birth country (i.e. The Fiji national team and later the ABs)
                  So yes the one way traffic between the PI nations and NZ is pretty fluid and active.
                  Little old Sivivatu probably couldn’t raise a national team as they’ve all departed!

                2. Mils Muilaini is the correct spelling for player number 1. above.
                  Correction for next post below is Vanuatu not Sivivatu (one of the smallest and least populated islands in the Polynesian/Melanesian chains

  2. I would argue there is a fifth lesson to be learnt by the ABs.
    Namely that they can’t afford to rely on their name any more to get the rub of the green (not even at home it seems). Past referees would not have dared send SBW off!
    This one did! And we haven’t really heard the last of it yet – principally the moans and the groans about 14 v 15! The inference is that its simply not rugby!
    To draw an analogy – in chess if a player INSISTS on throwing his King or Queen away then he’s a bit stuffed from the get go! The solution – Don’t do it because you’ll only have yourself to blame!
    Nor was this incident a one off as Kaino almost repeated the same offence (getting away with a yellow though arguably still costing his team 3 and with it the game)
    Yes Vunipola was ‘a very naughty boy’ but his and others infractions were never of the same category.
    Why is the cultural player attitude so different i hear you say?
    Because in the Premiership players are forced on a daily basis to watch and reign themselves in! Think Dylan Hartley and the flak he recieved for THAT swinging arm (not to mention the time spent in purdah and lost club revenue)
    NZ rugby is still all about machismo and unadulterated ‘muscle’! The culture in short is different and i would argue that they turn a blind eye a bit more often to the more extreme physical aspects of the game (rightly or wrongly and i’m making no judgement)
    The reality the ABs have to now contend with is how to reign in their
    natural physical inclinations (head rushes to some) when attached to their club teams on a week in week out basis. BECAUSE ONLY THEN will they be able to repeat what is now a more ‘disciplined modern approach’ on a one-off test refereed by a European ref.
    Until then there will continue to be regular upsets until such a time as the ABs have learnt to walk the tightrope that is Modern Rugby!

  3. I won’t go into that specific, last minute decision however; I really think that the application of the law really does need re-visiting.

    This past season or so I have seen numerous penalties given whereby the “accidental” element has been very clear. Particularly when running into a team mate.

    Referees have no have far more empathy for players who just get their timing, or lines of running wrong.

    In fact there was an incident in an earlier Lions game where Furlong held on to the ball, O’Brien over-ran and created a block. It was clearly an accident, no advantage was gained, evryone could see how it happened (I think Furlong thought too much, with the ball in hand!), and yet a penalty was awarded.

    1. Blub
      Furlong’s good with the ball in hand alright, esp when he’s clearly offside. No wonder you didn’t want to go into ‘that specific, last minute decision’. Some rules may need revisiting, but refs simply, mostly need to apply them objectively & consistently. Like, e.g., not allowing BIL’s to lie on in the tackle for so long that I thought I was watching a rugby league series. And no pt in mentioning the dumb Crockett last up, as he DID get pinged. If only…

      1. Don,

        “No wonder you didn’t want to go into ‘that specific, last minute decision’. ” Why do you write that?

        Naturally I couldn’t decipher everything you have written, but if i could be clear on what i infer from your reference to Furlong; I have made none, and really have no view on Furlong’s effectiveness with ball in hand. I only noted one incident when he was onside, but a team-mate (O’Brien was offside).

        To be clear for you, there is nothing in my post, implied or actual, that critcises New Zealand by the way.

  4. My biggest issue has been one of when the tackle is complete. Many many times a player was tackled, the tackler cleared out and then the ball carrier stands up again. Released due to clear out despite tackling to their knees?

  5. What I like most is subjective opinion, esp abt the AB’s need to learn lessons. 5 apparently, although I can’t recall the 1st 4! I also enjoy chess being compared to rugby. Eh? Isn’t that something like fish.. or their price? And it’s equally enlightening to know that Billy is only a ‘naughty boy, when he head butts an opponent on the ground when clearing out, or ‘tackles’ without his arms, so late that he missed the last his last taxi home. Must be a NH, cultural thing or summat, esp with NZ rugger based only on ‘muscle’. You just know it makes sense when they’re only the most successful team in world sport innit.

    1. As for the other four please see the title of the piece by Henry Ker “Four Lessons from the Lions”.
      By process of deduction my amendment to the piece ergo makes that five.
      Chess…a great game…..don’t knock other games/sports (a real tactical thinking man’s game chess). I guess Sonny Bill didn’t do too much of that before he got sent off!
      I haven’t seen or heard many agree with you Don on Vunipola’s need for a red. WORST scenario a yellow!
      I’m afraid as per my post there IS a cultural difference in how the game is played. It would be good if you for one (as a kiwi) admitted and acknowledged it. The northern hemisphere are paranoid about getting the wrong side of the ref and costing their team because of the money involved in the top end nowadays at club level (not to forget alot of private investment and the natural desire to see a return)
      The southern hemisphere don’t seem imho to toe the same safety-conscious line. The propensity to make the ‘Big Hit’ (rather than the conventional old school tackle) largely came from the SH’s Antipodean players did it not? That is NOT a comment on its illegality. Rather the opposite….the big hit spiced things up….but my point serves to highlight the difference in mindset. Its an ATTITUDINAL choice to play closer to the edge and prompts the SH players to fall the wrong side of the law (particularly when reffed by a european)
      It would be interesting for once to hear your honest and insightful views on the subject (devoid of propaganda and point scoring).
      Over to you…..take it away…..the floors yours.

      1. It was avoidable contact to the head with force, which is a clear red. Vunipola and SoB were both very lucky not to get carded.

        1. Have to disagree Teamcam.
          Yellow imo on the second incident (the clear out).
          Guess the ref saw it the same way hence it was what it was. ie. No incident!

  6. Friday lunchtime at the pub, Don?

    By the way; where do we find these lessons that the All Blacks need to learn? Did you mean to type that?

  7. Agreed that the law should be looked at for incidents like that and agreed that Poite got it wrong

    However, I do disagree with the idea that he bottled it. Surely to not give NZ the potentially series-winning penalty in NZ, in a stadium where they hadn’t lost a match in over 20 years, takes far more courage than simply giving the penalty?

    1. Agreed Pablito. Further, onne may argue that Poite did the precise opposite of “bottling it”, in that he reversed his previous decision. that must have taken some “bottle”.

      It is a very difficult situation and without doubt I would be very annoyed if I was from New Zealand (or the same decision had been made against the Lions).

      However, what makes it so difficult is that;
      (a) If Read doesn’t contact Williams in the air, then he likely doesn’t drop the ball. Although I don’t believe this is a penalty in the spirit of the game.
      (b) if Read doesn’t knock Williams towards the Lions line, and he still drops the ball, then the ball doesn’t appear to go forward.
      (c) The ball did not go forward in any case. It appeared to though, and it is only on slow motion replay that one can see it didn’t go forward.

      I wonder if this is what Garces is saying to Poite as he walked back to the spot and ultimately awarded a scrum instead.

  8. I see there’s some squabbles about application of the rules so here’s my 2-penneth worth.
    1) Feeding – say no more
    2) Line out throwing – refs are far stricter at level 5/6/7 than in top grade and international rugby
    3) As mentioned players being tackled then releasing and picking the ball up again. If you are brought to the knees and below by a player maintaining contact until that point the tackled player shouldn’t be able to play the ball until that ruck is over
    4) Players not releasing the ball when tackled. Frequently players are presenting the ball, then if there’s a threat of being turned over, retracting the ball back into the ruck and then presenting again when more support arrives. Also there is an issue with this happening and the tackled player lifting the ball 3ft from the ground for the half back to get quicker ball away

  9. Some well balanced opinions around today it would seem!

    Septimus, I agree with 1 (obviously) and 3. Mainly 3 because the tacklers are being forced to release so quickly and roll away that sometimes they give the impression that the tackle has not been completed, so simply mandating that the tackled player cannot be the next player to play the ball may be the simple answer here.

    As for No2, I am not sure I would agree. Lineouts at the top level are a completely different operation to that at the lower levels. At the top level, the refs seem to allow throws to the jumper when there is no contest, and only penalise when the jumper has to reach back toward his own try line. This is also true in most lower leagues. The big difference is that very often there is a lot of contest for the ball. Even at level 5 some teams only have one jumper (or at least one main jumper), so it becomes a lot easier to challenge.

    As for point 3, I like this way of playing – as long as the ball is not being contested.

    1. Re: feeding. How about a law that states the team putting the ball must (attempt to) hook the ball. Perhaps not ideal but would take away so much of the **** at scrum time and the the fans their game back for an extra 10 minutes

  10. False hope for NH IMO.
    NZ backs execution was terrible in the 3rd test pure and simple. Should have won the 3rd test by 20+ but did not execute. Pressure? No. Reason was they were missing Crotty, SBW, B Smith, NMS, 3 of whom played in RWC final. J Barrett goal kicking solves the other problem. As for test 2 deserved red card ended the game after 25mins and renders the result irrelevant. Ask yourself how much the Lions would have lost by playing with a red for 55 mins. 30? 40?

  11. “deserved red card ended the game after 25mins and renders the result irrelevant”.

    No it doesn’t.

    The result is the result. Cards are part of the game. They are intended to penalise one team.

    In the flip side, if everytime any of our teams lost we considered injuries, or what the team “should have” or “could have” done, we would never actually lose a relevant game would we?

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