DONAL LENIHAN: A fitting finale as Lions Tour lives up to the hype

A wistful Lions captain Sam Warburton stands beside the trophy. Picture: Stephen McCarthy

What a finale. A compelling Test match, played at a breathtaking pace in an exhilarating atmosphere.

It proved a fitting end to a monumental Test series that neither side deserved to lose but one that New Zealand will feel that they left behind.

And to think there are elements within the game in the four home country’s who want to see an end to the concept of Lions rugby.

Billed “The Decider” in the New Zealand media all week, the decisive third Test lived up to all the pre-match hype, delivering one of the great international rugby contests of the modern era in terms of intensity and drama.

That drama followed the game right to the final whistle when the series should have been decided on by a contentious call from French referee Romain Poite.

Under the letter of the law, when Ken Owens played the ball from an offside position — after it rebounded off Liam Williams — a penalty should have been awarded.

It’s a stupid rule as the player in question, in that split second, has no idea whether the ball was played by a teammate or the opposition.

Poite took things into his own hands and decided it was an accidental act by Owens in a call that will be debated for years to come.

The Lions will feel justice was done while New Zealand have genuine grounds for complaint given that the incident shouldn’t have been referred to the TMO as he can only adjudicate on acts of foul play or try-scoring issues.

In the cold light of day, New Zealand will have to reflect on the fact that they blew three clear try scoring opportunities in the opening half alone and another in the second with a forward pass from Jordie Barrett.

The Lions only led for three minutes over the course of the entire series yet, such was their resolve and refusal to be beaten, they deserved to get something out of the campaign.

That was an extraordinary achievement given that, from an organisational perspective, Lions tours are set up to fail. That is the unfortunate reality surrounding the modern day tour. Despite the outcome of the series, the entire rugby public of New Zealand are living in dread at the possibility that question marks surround the return of the legendary tourists in 12 years time.

That just cannot be allowed to happen. While the hosts are crying out for more, for all kinds of reasons — not least financial — the powers that be close to home, specifically the leaders of the club game in England, are crying stop.

By any yardstick, the 2017 Lions tour has to go down as a resounding success. The squad was dealt the cruellest of hands in undertaking the most difficult and challenging itinerary of the professional era. Making matters worse they lost one of their key players in Billy Vunipola in the week prior to departure.

An overall return of five wins, three defeats and two draws might not stack up statistically with other tours but the quality of opposition coupled with the ridiculously inadequate preparation time before the opening game against the Provincial Barbarians meant the visitors were destined to start this tour on the backfoot.

The rank stupidity in expecting the players to perform only three days after arriving in the country, coupled with the fact that the Guinness Pro12 and Aviva Premiership finals were played two days before departure, meant it was inevitable the tourists would struggle in the early games.

Apparently three of the players starting in the game against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei fell asleep on the team coach on the way to the game. That sums up the madness of a fixture that immediately put any player starting in that game on the back foot in terms of Test selection. In fact only six players from that opening side went on to start in at least one of the three Tests. Lions tours can be cruel on some players from that perspective.

The disappointing nature of that opening performance, coupled with the defeat to the Auckland Blues in the second game, immediately placed the tourists under intense pressure at a time when they were still introducing themselves to one another.

To recover from that position of weakness to take the series to the last game reflects on a job well done by the players and management. Warren Gatland copped some completely over the top abuse from the New Zealand media which helped create a siege mentality within the squad entering key pre-test games against the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks.

That was the period when Peter O’Mahony’s leadership qualities came to the fore in galvanising the entire party, yet shamefully, he appeared to become the fall guy for the opening test defeat. He can be proud of his input to this tour.

The pressure on New Zealand entering Saturday’s fascinating game was immense. Steve Hansen did everything in his power to reduce that by declaring it as being far from a life or death situation.

“New Zealand have lost games of rugby before, you know.”

Nobody was buying that.

That pressure manifested itself in some very uncharacteristic New Zealand handling errors in the opening half in perfect conditions for rugby. They butchered 10 points alone in the opening five minutes. Some of those errors can be attributed to an incredible defensive effort from the tourists, something that characterised their play right from the outset.

In that respect, defence coach Andy Farrell was magnificent once again. On the presumption that he is keen to become a head coach at some stage, Munster should seriously consider him as a replacement for Rassie Erasmus and convince David Nucifora to release him from his duties with Ireland. I think he would be a perfect fit, but that’s an issue for another day.

Apart altogether from the Lions and what this tour has done to cement the future of the remaining anachronism in the professional game, the biggest winners from this experience in the build up to the next World Cup in Japan in two years time could well be England and Ireland.

Prior to coming out here, Owen Farrell was the only one of the nine English players that featured in the opening test with any experience of playing against New Zealand. Now the next generation of leaders within Eddie Jones’s squad in Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Elliot Daly, Mako Vunipola, and Anthony Watson bring a wealth of experience back home to add to a young squad that managed an excellent series win in Argentina short over 20 players.

Likewise Joe Schmidt will be licking his lips at the prospect of interrogating the likes of Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Sean O Brien, Rory Best, and O’Mahony about the nuggets they picked up on tour and how they can be put to best advantage by his Irish squad.

Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong are still comparative novices in propping terms and have so much more to give to the Ireland set up. Iain Henderson did himself proud after a slow start, finally ripping off the shackles to show what a quality second row — his best position — he can become while CJ Stander got his just rewards for a good tour when playing the entire second half on Saturday.

Robbie Henshaw experienced the flip side of a Lions tour when, by getting a poor draw in the early sequence of games, he never really got a chance to show what he can do. He will be a better player for the experience however and is sure to feature again at this level while Jared Payne’s tour was compromised by injury throughout.

To be in New Zealand to witness the incredible passion and fervour this tour generated was an experience, even for me.

The New Zealand public loved the fact that they were pushed to the limit and revelled in seeing a side capable of asking more questions of their heroes than anyone else has managed for some time.

Roll on South Africa in four years time.


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