Peter Jackson: Lions backs fail to score a try - how did it come to this?

For the first time in more than half a century, the Lions completed a Test series without a single try from anyone behind the scrum
Peter Jackson: Lions backs fail to score a try - how did it come to this?

The Lions fell short because their backs were never given any ammunition until Finn Russell fired up his arsenal. (AP Photo/Halden Krog)

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.

They spent circa €5m hiring the best players and coaches only to finish up failing to do something that would have been taken for granted by their legions of fans. For the first time in more than half a century, the Lions completed a Test series without a single try from anyone behind the scrum.

What makes that stark fact starker still can be found in the lack of ambition behind it. The Lions created so little that their strike runners could not be accused of squandering tries because they had next to none to squander beyond the one Liam Williams butchered with the Springboks spreadeagled over the ropes.

Adherence to the ageless principle of draw-and-pass would have left Willie le Roux up a Cape Town creek and given Josh Adams a free run to put the Lions, if not quite out of sight, far enough away to have been beyond reach even of telescopic opponents.

Instead it ensured history of a very different kind. Even on the most punishing of tours, the Lions backs managed one try between them even if it meant next to nothing – one from Gareth Thomas during the most one-sided of all series in New Zealand in 2005, two (John Rutherford and Roger Baird) during the four-Test beating in the same place in 1983.

This time nothing but a big fat zero. When it comes to the debrief with Warren Gatland, the Lions management will be failing in the duty unless they grasp the nettle and ask: ‘How did it come to this?’

Nobody questions Gatland’s track record at the very highest level, all the more impressive for its longevity but to preside over a lost series when his Lions had so much going for them made the finale all the harder to bear.

The pandemic gave the tourists advantages none of their predecessors enjoyed, Willie John McBride’s 1974 Invincibles included. Every Test at sea-level, none in the forbidding Springbok shrines on the High Veldt, and, what’s more, against opponents denied a meaningful match for the best part of two years.

Edging the first, deservedly so, reinforced Gatland’s policy of risk-aversion.

Instead of going for broke after losing the second without firing a shot, he hedged his bets and refused to pick Finn Russell.

It seemed almost as if Gatland couldn’t bring himself to trust the mercurial Scot from the start, that it would all have been too great a risk even though Russell, and to a lesser extent the gifted Marcus Smith, would have challenged the Boks in a way neither Dan Biggar nor Owen Farrell did.

In a world where you make your own luck, Gatland has made enough to have had Napoleon cartwheeling about lucky generals. The gods decreed that Russell, far from being a last-resort for the final quarter and then only if the situation required, had almost the whole game to show what the Lions had missed.

When they had nobody else to turn to, he gave them everything they had been crying out for and it might not be an exaggeration to say that no running Lions fly-half has had quite the same impact since Phil Bennett tormented the apartheid Springboks of the Seventies.

Most of all, Finn in his finery gave the Lions what they lacked most of all: the vision to clinch the series. Instead they fell short because, for all Robbie Henshaw’s excellence, their backs were never given any ammunition until Russell fired up his arsenal.

A shame the tactical reappraisal hadn’t been made sooner.

Tour concept must be looked at long and hard

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.

Words of praise for Mathieu Raynal 

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.

Team of us?

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.’

Don't rule out Rog to step into Gatland's shoes  

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.

Robbie Henshaw set the gold standard

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. 

My Lions one-two-three:

Gold: Robbie Henshaw.

Silver: Courtney Lawes.

Bronze: Maro Itoje.

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