Monday, July 03, 2017

NEW ZEALAND-21 LIONS-24



Going by the social media debate following this epic test, Lions fans were divided between an attitude of "Aw come on, we only won because of the red card!" and "Aw come on, we beat the All Blacks, who cares how?".

As you can see by my choice of lead photo and heading, I'm leaning towards the former.  You definitely can't deny Sonny Bill WIlliams' 24th minute dismissal had a direct influence on the final score, the only real debate should be...would the Lions have won without it?  Personally, I don't think so, though it probably would have been close.

Thing about that though is, you're straying towards that magical mystical world of ifs and buts and maybes, so if it's ok with you I'll restrict my harping to what actually happened.  I have opted this time for a "headings" approach.

THE RED CARD

I lurked on a couple of Facebook threads involving Kiwi fans after the match and was interested to see opinion divided, mostly because of an aversion for some to the fact that Sonny Bill has a strong background in rugby league.

Putting the political implications of that view aside, it is true that his, er, "challenge" on Anthony Watson was like something you'd see in the 13-man code.  One man tackles the player, a second gives him a hit to make sure he's not thinking of going anywhere.  And that second hit can tend to be a tad aggressive.

Thing is though...Williams could see the whites of Watson's eyes as he approached and there was no sign of him pulling back.  How the winger was able to return to the field of play I'll never know.   Personally I don't think that would have been given as red before the "zero tolerance" guidelines, but since they are now in place, I don't see how the officials had any choice.

Most interesting about this call was the hemispheric split between the officials.  George Ayoub in the TMO box saying "You want to see it again?" when Garces indicated he was thinking red, and Peyper saying something like "Did you hear what George said?".  Thankfully the match referee was able to assert his authority, and I mean that as a rugby supporter every bit as much as a Lions one.

WHAT WENT BEFORE

Prior to that pivotal moment, the match was going exactly as I had feared it would.  The Lions had found ways to get the edge in both possession and territory in that time, only with little or nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.

No matter what the reason for the lack of points, it was bound to have an affect on the tourists mentally given how it has been a pattern throughout all the matches up to now.  And I was certain that every second that went by without us crossing the tryline made it more difficult for us.

Then the red card happened and this gave us a new hope that would last right to the end of the match.

HOW THE ALL BLACKS ADAPTED

Apologies to Leinster fans for bringing this up but I feel I must.  When Sonny Bill went off, there were players on the Lions side like Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams who knew on recent evidence that going a man down doesn't guarantee a match is over for you.

Plus, these are the All Blacks we are talking about.  Often they play with such technical precision that you wonder if there's more than fifteen of them out there, so when they lose one they are more than capable of remaining competitive.

What Hansen chose to do with this dilemma was interesting...he sacrificed a back rower in Jerome Kaino and plugged the Sonny Bill sized hole in the 12 channel with debutante Ngani Laumape, who had caused the tourists all sorts of problems earlier in the week for the Hurricanes.

But it wasn't just a question of replacing his inside centre...the World Champions proceeded to play a style of rugby which for them could definitely be called "conservative".  Many bemoan the fact that the Lions took a long time to get going after the sending off...to be fair though, we struggled to get the ball  off of them in that time!  Having said that, what comes in the next heading certainly didn't help.

THE LIONS PENALTIES & ERRORS

Of course thirteen penalties looks bad on any team's stat sheet.  The Lions definitely had disciplinary issues.  But I can't make that point without a couple of caveats - first, as I said in the previous heading, the All Blacks were playing for them after the red card and second, referee Jerome Garces was always more inclined to give them.

Many have rounded on Mako Vunipola for his pair of no-nos in quick succession that led to his yellow card but I for one am willing to cut him some slack.  For both of his infringements, namely late hit on the kicker and an illegal clear out, he was doing something that had just been done by an All Black moments before (Codie Taylor and Sam Cane respectively) yet neither got a single replay from the NZ TV directors while Mako's were shown ad nauseum.

Still, like I said, we did struggle to come to grips with Garces' refereeing, which makes me wonder exactly what Sam Warburton was bringing to the Lions' table.  Plus there were other errors, like Sexton and Daly kicking over the dead ball line losing over half the field of territory each time, as well as our forgetting the rule about choke tackles not working if the maul is formed following a catch.

The Lions did plenty to make the All Black's task of playing with 14 men for almost an hour a lot easier, that's for sure.

THE SEXTON/FARRELL AXIS

This was always a good pairing on paper...but how exactly would it work on grass?  We got our answer over the 80 minutes...brilliantly.

Clearly the two were able to put their respective egos aside and work together and the result was a series of runs, body shimmies and passes of all varieties that was able to create loads of space in the All Blacks' defensive line even before the sending off.

And as Barrett put his team up by 18-9 with 57 minutes gone, it wouldn't have surprised me if Gatland introduced Ben Te'o for Sexton to try to crash his way to some tries, but he stuck with his original selection and was duly rewarded.

Toby Faletau did very well to finish one try and Jamie George and Conor Murray combined equally well for the other, but both were teed up by the All-Star 10/12 combo.  The first was a classic sweep back and forth across the pitch; a trademark Sexton wraparound one way, a brilliant miss pass from Farrell to Liam Williams the other before the final pass to Toby.

Next we had a score which also came from a lineout move, only this time it was a faint from Sexton before an offload to George who barrelled into the heart of the Kiwi 22 (this kind of thing is what convinced WG to give him the 2 jumper IMO) then Murray showed once again how much he likes to side step New Zealand scrum halves before going over.

The amazing thing about our two impressive tries was that they only brought us back to parity with our hosts on the scoreboard!  Still some work to do.

BEAUDEN BARRETT

Much has been said about his kicks that went astray...I want to discuss them too, but not just the ones off the tee.  Those cost his side a total of nine points; I think others would have been worth five to seven each with better accuracy,

One was a kick through to his skipper Kieran Reid which in the end fell perfectly for Elliott Daly.  Another was into the corner but went too far and over the dead ball line.  Then the second Lions try came after a poor exit kick which only found touch outside his own 22.

And finally, when he had the ball again in his own 22 and the clock on 79 minutes, who would have bet against the All Blacks going the length of the field to snatch a victory?  He chose a little chip kick forward which I presume he intended to catch himself...instead it fell into the grateful arms of Sean O'Brien.

Playing at this level for this team, those have to be considered costly errors.  Not a great day at the office for Barrett on his home patch by any means.

WAS THAT A PENALTY AT THE END?

Yes, because the ref called it.  Also because it's about time that low chop tackle saw some real consequences...if the player in possession is any way off his feet on contact, I see no reason why the Laws of the Game should apply any less than other times.  That's not to say we didn't catch a break here, but we deserved one.

I do have to point out though that the All Blacks deserve much credit for how they played after going three points behind.  Any other rugby team on the planet at any level would have played for the penalty in those final minutes.  I would have had confidence in the All Blacks for keeping possession long enough to win a penalty, as I would have had confidence in the referee to find a Lion's infringement worthy of awarding one.

But it simply wasn't on their radar, even though a draw would have been a great  (and fair IMO) result all things considered - they only wanted to win and few would have bet against them.

SEAN O'BRIEN

Look - it's a Leinster and Ireland blog you're reading and throughout this tour I have made no secret of the fact that I'll have my blue and green goggles on me for the duration.   Overall I thought he was outstanding.

Sure, he was probably a bit lucky to escape sanction for his challenge on Naholo, although that was a kiss on the cheek compared to what Sonny Bill did to Watson and I feel the Kiwi indignation comes from a desire for some kind of quid pro quo.

What I took most from his display was right at the end of the match...Barrett's chip out of his own 22 was poor like I said earlier but it was heading straight to Seanie and must have taken an age to reach him from his perspective.  He proved to be just the man we needed in that situation as he took it cleanly and knew exactly how to set up the phases to kill the rest of the clock, he even had another carry later in the series for good measure.

When Vunipola was in the bin, Sean was always going to go off for a replacement prop but as it turned out we didn't have a scrum until there was just over a minute left and I reckon Gatland couldn't send the Tullow Tank back on fast enough.  My man of the match.  Sorry if you think that's biased, I don't care.

CAN THE LIONS GO ON AND WIN IT?

This was an amazing match as a one-off test.  It was entertaining to watch live as a fan, fascinating to re-watch as a blogger and if I had time I'd find loads more to harp on with further looks.

But the truth is that my attitude towards this band of Lions tourists hasn't changed...yes, they definitely CAN beat the All Blacks on any given day, it's just that on most given days, they wouldn't.

Personally I would hope Gatland is willing to make more "brave" third test calls much like four years ago, but even with different personnel I'd be inclined to think the perfect storm in Wellington won't be recreated back in Auckland.

Congrats to all involved in the squad regardless...nothing can take this achievement from them no matter what happens next.  JLP

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