Is Steve Hansen getting the best out of a world-class talent like Beauden Barrett? asks Donal Lenihan
The beauty of this country is stunning, the people are warm, friendly and extremely hospitable — at least until they enter the stadium and don their rugby blinkers — but on occasions, you feel as if you have been transported back in time in New Zealand.
When you see the magnificent programme being put together to entice the rugby authorities around the globe to grant Ireland the staging of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, you have to wonder, purely in terms of facilities, infrastructure and technical support, how New Zealand were ever awarded the 2011 event, enjoyable and all as it was.
For a number of supporters, their first ever experience of attending a game in this country was against the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua. It rained that night and the fact that a large quantity of Lions fans were confined to vantage points on the wet grassy banks that bordered large parts of the pitch, didn’t make for pleasant viewing. It was no different when Ireland played Russia there six years ago at the World Cup.
Then again, it rains a lot in New Zealand. Despite that, we have been absolutely blessed on that front since our arrival a few weeks ago, even if conditions on some of the match days have been pretty miserable. Overall, it’s been pretty decent.
At least it has been nothing like the atrocious conditions that followed the 1977 Lions around the country when England hooker Peter Wheeler described his experience, when writing home, thus: “It only rained twice this week, once for four days and once for three.”
Penning a letter home was the principal means of communication back then, backed up with the privilege of one phone call a week, if you were lucky, which had to be booked in advance. There have been times on this trip when it felt as if little has progressed since then.
Wellington is beautiful, more European in appearance than most of the bigger New Zealand cities, with a well developed and lively waterfront area. Yet, staying a few miles out of the city centre in the nearby suburb of Kilbernie, the equivalent of Ballincollig to Cork, you felt a little divorced from civilisation.
I discovered as much when combing the local Kilbernie coffee shops in search of wifi, with that modern-day convenience treated very much as a luxury item. Finding an outlet that stays open beyond 4pm was a challenge in itself, not to mention the prospect of sourcing one that might enable you to establish contact the outside world.
Venting my frustration to one proprietor and explaining to her that I was in need of sending some urgent emails, she escorted me to the nearest hairdressing salon and organised the owner to connect up to their system and do some work. Highlights to my left, shampoo and cut to my right! It proved difficult to concentrate. And they question our ability to host a World Cup!
What has become abundantly clear over the last few weeks is how much they value and welcome this Lions tour and the competitive nature of all the games. With their Super Rugby sides beating all comers with consummate ease in that tournament and the All Blacks utterly dominant in the Rugby Championship, suggestions emanating from the Premiership club owners in England that this could, potentially, be the last Lions tour to New Zealand has made a big impact here.
The prospect of that happening is freaking them to the point where losing last weekend to level the series was even palatable, to a degree, if, in the long run, it helps keep the great Lions touring tradition alive.
That element of goodwill, I suspect, isn’t going to be extended much further and the prospect of losing the series, something that seemed inconceivable to the hosts only 10 days ago, is now starting to become a worrying possibility.
A run of injuries across their midfield and back three, coupled with the suspension of Sonny Bill Williams after his red card in Wellington, has served to dampen expectations to some degree.
Couple that with the fact that the free flowing New Zealand try-scoring machine that registered 12 tries in their warm-up test against Samoa a few weeks ago was outscored by two tries to nil at the Westpac Stadium. That is not a position they are used to.
The world class Beauden Barrett has not been able to influence the outcome of the opening two tests as much as had been anticipated, much of that in my opinion, due to the failure of Steve Hansen to keep him at out-half for 80 minutes. Surely that won’t be allowed happen for a third test in a row.
In a country where a high percentage of games are played in adverse weather conditions, the wind and rain that impacted on the All Blacks offloading and continuity game last weekend cannot be used as an excuse either, even if it did serve to narrow the gap between the sides.
The fact that, in the end, the Lions won the second test by introducing more width and passing variety to their game when delivering two extremely well-constructed tries by Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray has only served to stick the knife in a little bit further.
What we know with certainty is, just like happened in Dublin two weeks after Ireland’s first ever defeat of New Zealand in Chicago, there will be a reaction from New Zealand and it will be full on.
Towering second row Brodie Retallick has already referred to the fact that the Lions were a lot more physical and confrontational last Saturday night than in the first test in Auckland and that appeared to catch them off-guard. “We need to sort that out.” Indeed. I think we know what’s coming.
Like the rest of us this week, the Lions tour party choose to decamp to the tranquil surroundings of Queenstown for a little rest and recuperation, even if it is proving impossible for the players to escape the vast hoards of Lions supporters who have taken over this picturesque south island holiday resort.
In the meantime, New Zealand are regrouping, under the radar, back in Auckland. Their pride has been dented and the prospect of becoming the first New Zealand side to lose a series to the Lions in 46 years is at the forefront of their thinking right now. The fact that their squad is front loaded with, back to back, World Cup winners only makes the pressure that bit greater.
Their place in the proud history of New Zealand rugby had already been cemented but lose next Saturday night and the reputations of a lot of quality players will suffer irreparable damage. In their proud history, New Zealand have never lost two tests in a row to the Lions.
Only seven months ago, they had never lost to Ireland either. A number of this, highly decorated, New Zealand squad now face the prospect of creating history of an unwanted kind for the second time in less than a year. No doubt that will only serve to concentrate the mind even further.
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