Amid the blizzard of stats blowing over the strangest of series, one stands out like the sorest of thumbs and yet nobody has dared mention it, least of all the Lions.
As the dust settles and the vast battalions of immobilised fans debate a verdict of misadventure, the four home Unions will spend the coming days asking themselves a rhetorical question: ‘Have we missed a trick?’
The longer they think about it, the more they will surely come to the conclusion, privately if not publicly, that they missed a pack full of them. As a touring team like no other, the Lions can lay claim to being supreme evangelists, spreading the rugby gospel to less enlightened corners of the globe.
Judged on that criteria, the series failed dismally, most of all during the 62 minutes of that interminably dreadful first half of the second Test. For the casual observer in his rigid boredom, it would have been an instant turn-off.
He, or she, wasn’t short of alternative forms of superior entertainment from other theatres of sport: the Euros, Wimbledon, the Open, GAA and, most of all, the quadriennial phenomenon from Tokyo.
The Lions have been careful to avoid clashing with the Olympics Games since Tony Ward and Ollie Campbell shared out-half duty throughout all four Tests in South Africa more than 40 years ago. Needless to say, for the less than committed, rugby, especially the kind of attritional warfare served up for most of the series, suffered from the competition.
While the Lions are the game’s sacred cow, to mix zoological metaphors, their very concept now needs to be looked at long and hard. Hosts fielding deliberately weakened teams have devalued non-Test fixtures to such an extent that there no longer seems any point.
Never mind the recurring call for greater preparation time for Australia in 2025, do the Wallabies have sufficient depth to avoid more of the mis-matches of recent weeks? Money being the bottom line, the Lions will be better off stopping in Japan en route to Sydney.
Somewhere, somehow they need to rediscover a sense of enjoyment. This series overflowed with more spite and argy-bargy than Liverpool v Manchester United generates twice a season. Overall, it did rugby no favours.
The parallels surrounding Morne Steyn’s historic action replay between then and now extended beyond the old man’s enduring ability to execute the ultimate pressure kick. Just as Christophe Berdos awarded the fateful last-kick penalty in Pretoria 12 years ago, so another French referee did likewise in the 79th minute.
Mathieu Raynal, let it be said, did a first-class job in trying circumstances. Sam Warburton may have succeeded in making France’s most senior referee, Romain Poite, inexplicably change his mind and save the Lions in New Zealand four years earlier but Conor Murray never had a prayer of talking Raynal into changing his.
It didn’t stop the acting captain trying. Raynal, unflustered from start to finish, listened to Murray’s protest, then waved him away. He had done the same some 20 minutes earlier when Alun-Wyn Jones persisted with his complaint at the awarding of Cheslin Kolbe’s try.
"You asked me a question," Raynal told the Welshman. "I gave you my answer."
And when Jones persisted in a rather belligerent tone, Raynal, without raising his voice, gave him a verbal flea in the ear: "This is not a debate."
His understated authority helped prevent a repeat of the nastiness of seven days earlier. Whenever any player told him to give a penalty or call the TMO, as more than one Lion did, he issued a simple rebuke and they shut up.
The Lions are puffed up with so much hype from their cheerleaders that at times you wonder how they could raise a gallop. Their ‘we-are-one’ mantra, repeated ad infinitem, did not extend to taking a collective pre-match knee.
Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler were left on their own.
While they knelt, everyone else stood bolt upright, as if saying: ‘You’re on your own, lads.’
The idea of Gatland extending his long career for yet one more tour has already been floated, almost as if it’s his to turn down. Maybe by the time the next one comes round, they will ask someone else whose credentials are already mighty impressive. You will know the name: Ronan O’Gara.
After the wonderful Kellie Harrington and those out-of-this-world oarsmen from Skibbereen, another Irish champion can be seen on the podium, if only through this column.
: Maro Itoje.