Now that the dust has settled on a dramatic final drawn game, opportunity to reflect on the tour and look at how proud the touring party should be on what they achieved on this tour.
At the final whistle yesterday in Auckland, there was a strange atmosphere at the ground plus in many bars around the world. A draw seems such an anti-climax. However, prior to this tour my own expectations were that the Lions would not win one test match in a three match test series, and in the ten games they were going to play, I did not believe they would win five matches overall.
I do not feel those expectations were overly pessimistic. It was not that I did not rate the Lions touring party, I know many of the players were rightly rated in the top group of players in their respective positions, it is just that New Zealand has world class talent in some areas, they have been together for a number of years, not just a six-week period that the Lions had to gel, plus New Zealand are at the start of their season unlike the Lions players who have completed a full season with no real rest since September last year.
A drawn series against the reigning World Champions in their own backyard is a fantastic achievement. Losing only three matches, drawing two and winning five matches, against strong Super Rugby teams, the national side and the Maoris, again, they should be very proud of and rightly so. The defence, in particular, was fantastic, Andy Farrell and all the players that played put their bodies on the line, the line speed and organisation was top drawer. Only conceding five tries in three tests against a normally free-scoring All Blacks side, is a fantastic statistic and achievement, and all should be proud of that fact. For me, drawing a series in New Zealand is a greater playing achievement than the series win in Australia four years ago. Australia were not at the peak of their powers and in my view, the Lions should have won all the tests rather than take it to a deciding game in the third test.
In terms of Head Coach, Warren Gatland, he deserves a lot of credit for what happened on this tour as well. I have never been his biggest fan, as I feel he is a strong coach, but in my view he has not adapted his rugby style enough in recent years, he knows what works for him over the years, i.e. strong defence, when in possession, send big strong ball carriers into contact, set it up again, and then send more big ball carriers around the corner, reset and start again.
However, on this tour, he identified they needed ball players in the side to create chances against New Zealand, and him bringing into the side Liam Williams at full-back, Elliot Daly on the wing and a big decision after the first test, dropping Ben Te’o, a big physical ball carrying centre very much in the Gatland mould, and bringing in Jonny Sexton to play at ten, with Owen Farrell moving to twelve, and then having two play makers in the side. With Sexton and Farrell in there, Lions could go wider, and he stayed true to this ideology in the second test when many wanted Te’o on, but Sexton and Farrell played massive roles in the Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray tries, which helped the Lions gain that historic victory in Wellington.
It will be interesting to see what happens when Gatland goes back to coach Wales now, will he maintain Williams at full-back and look to play with a second play maker in the inside centre position? Or will we see Leigh Halfpenny at full-back, with Liam Williams back on the wing and a strong forceful centre at twelve reminiscent to Jamie Roberts? Time will tell.
Gatland also deserves credit for how the players and coaches seemed to gel. There has not been any noises from the group of issues or players feeling isolated as there have been any some other previous tours. Obviously, it helps if your winning, but it seems players believed they had opportunities to impress, and if you did you had every chance of playing in the test team, which we clearly saw with Williams and Daly playing well in the midweek team prior to the second test against The Chiefs, and then playing in the test team only three days later.
Gatland has never been scared to make decisions which may upset people as has proven many times. On this tour, we had “the geography six”, six players chosen from Scotland and Wales to literally come and sit on a bench and only come on in midweek games if absolutely needed. Media and fans alike were unhappy with this, and if they had lost the series this would forever more stain Gatland’s reputation, and he must have known this, but he believed what he was doing was or the good of the squad.
Dropping Peter O’Mahony after the first test was also a big call. O’Mahony was named the captain for the first test and had a solid game, but Gatland wanted to go a different route, and not only was O’Mahony dropped from the starting fifteen but the match day twenty-three, and never got back into the test arena on tour. Gatland and upsetting the Irish, not for the first time, also Scotland felt hard done by for their representation on this tour, so when Gatland comes back to coach Wales, I am sure when they play Scotland and Ireland in the six nations, that will add some spice to those occasions.
In terms of the players, many have come out of the tour with their reputations intact and some now have raised people’s perceptions of them on the world stage, which happens when you perform against the best team in the world. Players such as Maro Itoje, Jonathan Davies, Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray now rightly are amongst the best players in the world in their respective positions. Others such as Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Courtney Lawes, Ben Te’o, Jamie George and Anthony Watson just to name a few, have shown they deserve to be on the international stage as regular starters and could progress to be genuinely rated world class players.
Also, like to give a special mention to Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton (yes I am biased as a Welshman). Jones, had many people doubting whether he could still go at the top level, after the first test loss. Jones, took a bang on the head early on in that match, and yes, it was not one of his stand out performances but I felt it was still better than his second-row partner on that day, George Kruis. Gatland kept faith with Jones, who then for the second and third test, put in outstanding displays. He carried well, was a nuisance at the breakdown and a real leader throughout, cajoling his team-mates and standing up to the physical battle that New Zealand brought. Jones has now won nine Lions caps consecutively and is one of the all-time great Welsh players.
Warburton yet again, showed just what a special player he is. Defensively, Warburton on the back foot is the best back row player in Europe and can rightfully take his place with the top players in that position in the world such as David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Francois Louw. His work at the breakdown to disrupt, slow ball down and turn the ball over is world class. Even if he cannot win it, he manages to slow it down with an arm a foot, or whatever he can to help stop the momentum of the opposition. In the first test, Aaron Smith had clean ball and could do whatever he wanted, it is no coincidence this changed in the next two tests with Warburton on the field. Warburton also is very clever at holding players down in rucks or grabbing an opposing player foot to stop him getting back into position to take the next pass.
Warburton also has such a good relationship with match day officials, he conducts himself so professionally, and talks to them in a cool, non-offensive manner. The way he asked Romain Poite to go to the video in the last minute of the game to ensure Poite had made the right decision was fantastic, let’s not play that down at all, if Warburton had not done that, more than likely we would now not be looking at a drawn series, penalty was right out in front, and even if Barrett missed a few I am sure that one would have sailed through the posts. Wales are lucky to have Sam Warburton as they are with another outstanding back row player in Justin Tipuric who was unlucky not to play in the tests. However, many fans either like one or the other, and then for some reason try to play down the other player’s abilities. Both are great players, admire them and enjoy them playing while you can. Wales with a back row of players such as Warburton, Tipuric, Faletau, Ellis Jenkins, James Davies, Thomas Young, Ross Moriarty and Dan Lydiate just to name a few are spoilt for choice and have some big decisions to make.
In closing, New Zealand will feel they should have won the series, what with a number of tries they blew and a number of kicks missed. Matches are decided by small margins, and indeed they did leave many points out on the field, and the sending off and loss of Ben Smith and Dane Coles were big losses. But Lions, deserve so much credit, they also had try scoring opportunities they failed to execute, but their defence, their willpower and believe they had in high-pressure situations were immense. They should be very proud and rightfully should be remembered in many years time for achieving a drawn series. The proud Lions tradition moves on. Roll on 2021 in South Africa.