The British and Irish Lions make history

New Zealand 21 – British and Irish Lions 24

IMG_0654Context

In 40 matches over more than 100 years Saturday was only the British and Irish Lions’ seventh win over the New Zealand All Blacks. It was the first since 1993. Prior to that the previous victory over the New Zealanders was back in 1977. So Lions wins over the All Blacks are pretty rare. Just as rare are All Blacks defeats in New Zealand. This loss in the Westpac stadium was the first defeat on home soil since 2009. It was also the first defeat in Wellington since 2003. Historical records are made to be broken but it was a tough ask. It was made a little easier for the Lions however.

IMG_2036The Red Card

The big turning point was of course Sonny Bill Williams’ sending off. You’d like to think that in any era of rugby union his deliberate shot to the jaw of Anthony Watson would be a red card offence. But in today’s game, with the laws tightened this season to crack down and protect players, Garces had no option whatsoever. Even the most one-eyed Kiwi had to acknowledge that under the laws it had to be a dismissal from the field of play. For additional context this was the first red card given to an All Black in fifty years, only the third in history and the first on New Zealand soil ever. Such is the rarity of the event that the Lions had clearly not planned for it. As a result, they seemed rocked by the sudden tag of favourites.

IMG_0652Lions discipline costs them dearly

After halftime the Lions did practically everything they could to hand the game to the Kiwis. The one man advantage seemed to plague them with a string of rash decisions and indiscipline. Mako Vunipola gave away four penalties alone. His yellow card could’ve been very costly too. Mercifully Beauden Barrett missed three kicks at goal which kept the Lions in striking distance. Had he kick them, the All Blacks would’ve been out of sight on the scoreboard. Instead the Lions responded not once but twice.

IMG_0653Tries beat the All Blacks

It has been said all tour that to beat the All Blacks you have to score tries against them. Even in the poor conditions of a Wellington winter the Lions managed to score two exceptionally well crafted tries. These were needed because the Lions had allowed the All Blacks to build a decent lead. But when it really counted players’ handling was spot on. The finishing was also clinical, first from Taulepe Faletau and then by Connor Murray. When composure was required the players in red delivered. Whilst the Lions scored two tries they crucially managed to keep the All Blacks out from crossing the tryline.

IMG_0656Defence helps too

Certain changes in the starting fifteen were designed to win the collisions, particularly on the gainline. The back row, particularly O’Brien and Warburton combined well to make their tackles. Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones put in big hits, stopping the men in black from gaining momentum and yards which they had managed with ease seven days previously. It was a colossal effort. With Sonny Bill Williams off the All Blacks’ tactics changed somewhat. They themselves reverted to a ‘Warrenball’ style. Heroically the red defensive line held firm. A fluke occurrence of poor pass and a tackle in the air alllowed the Lions to sneak ahead and see the game out. Massive credit to Owen Farrell for slotting the vital penalty too. It levels the series up at 1-1 with a return to Eden Park in Auckland to decide the Test series.

IMG_0655The Decider

The Lions have proved that they can beat the All Blacks. Sometimes professional sport is just about belief. Momentum too. Both will now be on the side of the Lions. It was refreshing to hear Sam Warburton say the job was only half done following the final whistle. This is a player who has never beaten New Zealand and yet his first thoughts were of repeating the result next week. That is a real leader. All of these players will realise that an opportunity to become immortal legends has been earned. They’ve proved to themselves they can win. They’ve shown that they can score tries. If the British and Irish Lions players put in the performance of their lives once again then maybe, just maybe, the impossible can become reality.

The All Blacks will be a very different proposition next week. They might even keep fifteen players on the field. But they will also be under pressure and how they cope with that pressure will be a deciding factor. Ultimately the All Blacks wanted a competitive test series and a challenge. They’ve sure as hell got one now!

Advertisements

Warren Gatland heads up Lions Tour 2017

image
In perhaps the most poorly kept secret in rugby history, Warren Gatland has officially been unveiled as the Head Coach of the 2017 British and Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand. Everyone had predicted it. Gatland had also been spotted in Edinburgh and was also snapped posing for photographs in the Lions polo shirt. So there was to be no shocking surprise and Gats is the man.

Now Warren Gatland is of course an outstanding candidate for the role. In 2009 he toured South Africa as part of the coaching staff under the leadership of Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan. Although that Test series ended in defeat, it did manage to reignite the brand. Four years previously the disastrous New Zealand tour had brought into question the team’s place in the modern game. Victory under Gatland against Australia in 2013, the team’s first victory in a Test series since 1997, made the challenge credible and not just a futile financial undertaking.

imageHowever the challenge of defeating the All Blacks is an intimidating one. The Lions have only ever won a test against New Zealand once way back in 1971. They are consistently the best team in world rugby, reigning back-to-back world champions and with a phenomenal won/lost record. On top of that the Lions have a daunting series of matches against New Zealand’s five super rugby teams, plus the Maori’s and a provincial XV.

Warren Gatland’s recent record as Head Coach of Wales is a concern. Whilst other teams have developed Wales have stagnated, failing to win the Six Nations since 2013. This past summer Gatland was left embarrassed as his hometown team the Waikato Chiefs beat his Wales squad. It will be fascinating to find out who will be selected to join the coaching lineup.

There can be no doubt however that even in the early stages of the rugby season the Lions looms large on the horizon. I’m just hoping that at the end of a long season we still have enough players left to take on the All Blacks.

The Wallabies in meltdown

Australian rugby union is in a bit of a crisis. The Wallabies have lost the last six in a row. Three against England and three against the All Blacks. As a neutral observer I am simply astounded by the way in which they have constructed a defensive formation in an attempt to hide their frailties. The selection of Quade Cooper caused a few raised eyebrows this week but given the poor showing in Sydney there wasn’t really much more to lose. However, this selection of a mercurial talent with ball in hand is also one of a defensive liability. For a number of years the Wallabies have attempted to hide Cooper from the firing line and that strategy continued yesterday. Unfortunately this means that their defensive system from first phase is a mishmash of players out of position with no leadership and limited structure.

Let’s start with New Zealand’s first try. Bernard Foley, the inside centre is defending blindside wing with scrum half Will Genia. Back rowers Hooper and Pocock are out defending in the 10 channel. Outside them left winger Adam Ashley-Cooper is with Kerevi the outside centre and right winger Haylett-Petty is at an outside centre position. Israel Folau is then on the wing with Quade Cooper covering fullback.

Even if this is all intended they are then undone by individuals flying up and missing tackles. Hooper puts pressure on Barrett successfully but in the very next phase Stephen Moore flies out of the line and takes the wrong man giving tighthead prop Franks a gap to run into. The try is then finished off with simple hands and a massive overlap.

The All Blacks’ second try is fairly similar, scoring from another maul formed at the lineout. Adam Ashley-Cooper (14) has had to go off so new cap Hodge (23) was now left defending at outside half with Kerevi (13) and Haylett-Petty (11) outside with Folau again on the wing. Unfortunately these players get sucked in because Beauden Barrett was not first receiver and looped around.

Although as Michael Lynagh identified in the UK coverage there was a suspicion of a trip to Kerevi, who ended up on the turf, the green and gold jerseys were just flapping at All Black shirts. This was summed up perfectly by a covering Quade Cooper’s traditional turnstile-tackling technique.

The third try is really obvious. With Quade Cooper having dropped back defending the blindside wing, Aaron Smith targets him with a box kick. Dagg easily beats him to the ball and New Zealand have possession, field position and momentum. Beauden Barrett’s exquisite pass to put Ben Smith outside the defending Haylett-Petty to create the overlap however was the icing on the cake.

New Zealand’s fourth try was again from first phase possession that exposed the Australian defensive arrangement. Once again Hodge, Kerevi, Haylett-Petty and Folau provide the defensive line with back rowers Hooper and Pocock providing further cover closer to the maul. Things are not helped with a missed tackle on Ben Smith which makes the try an inevitability. Even when Smith is brought down there is no other last ditch tackling with Quade Cooper again clutching at thin air and failing to prevent Aaron Smith getting the ball away, leaving Folau with an impossible job of keeping out Sam Cane.

These defensive frailties result in Pocock and Hooper’s skills of competing at the breakdown to be negated as they spend more of their time making tackles for others in the team. Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley had such little possession to work with given the Australian lineout was again being picked off that it made their presence on the field more problematic than beneficial. For instance, Cooper is thought to have made just 2m for his four carries. Surely Cheika’s gamble on selecting him backfired big time.

REVIEW: Rugby World Cup 2015

ChampsSo that is it. 48 matches. 2,439 points including 271 tries. 2,477,805 spectators. Many are calling it the best Rugby World Cup ever. Certainly the most financially lucrative, no surprise given the steep prices for matches in major stadiums. It was a controversial call to spread the game to non-rugby playing locations, such as Brighton and Milton Keynes, but the stadiums were full and the only threat to not increasing player participation was in fact England bombing out of the tournament in the pool stages. A global audience were treated to probably the best final we have ever seen in terms of entertaining rugby. But what of the tournament as a whole?

JPN RSA

The tournament got off with an earth-shattering bang with Japan beating two-time former champions South Africa. That match is what makes rugby union and sport generally so enthralling and gripping. The bravery of Japan to go for the win when a draw was the easy option inspired England to attempt to replicate it against Wales when actually they should have sealed the draw. Karne Hesketh’s try was an incredible moment, up there with some of the best in Rugby World Cup history. Sadly there were to be no further upsets but gone are the days when the lower ranked teams are given a 100 point pasting, the gap has closed. For example, Georgia gave New Zealand a really good game in Cardiff, and theirs was just one of several incredible team performances.

NZ FRA

Australia put in a superb display against England and then backed that up with a defensive effort against Wales which bordered on the absurd. Wales themselves pulled out an improbable victory against England when obliterated by injuries and were unlucky against South Africa in the quarter-final because it could have gone either way. The unluckiest of course were Scotland who performed in a match better than they have in a World Cup game since 1991 in that quarter-final against Australia, suffering a controversial penalty and further insulted by Craig Joubert’s dash from the pitch. Argentina also put in a clinical display early on against Ireland, who will once again rue a missed opportunity at a World Cup, proving that they have benefited from competing with the Southern Hemisphere big guns in the Rugby Championship. I was privileged to watch the New Zealand v France game in Cardiff. Although the French were diabolical you could not fail to heap praise on the All Blacks who played a brand of total rugby never seen before with audacious offloads, skillful carrying from all the forwards and all performed at a ferocious pace. Quite rightly it was the All Blacks who have retained their trophy.

Final

This group of New Zealand All Blacks are perhaps the best sporting team in history. Ranked number 1 in all of world rugby since November 16th 2009 they richly deserve all the plaudits directed their way, consistently winning matches, with a team featuring some legends of the sport. Several of those players have been hanging on, no longer at the peak of their powers, to retain the trophy it took so long for them to recapture. A victorious final will have been a fitting finale for players such as Carter, Nonu, Conrad Smith, Mealamu and probably McCaw, plus Tony Woodcock who departed the tournament injured. These players have targeted this victory as their swansong but newcomers like Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick and Nehe Milner-Skudder have added to the squad and win their first World Cup. In Ritchie McCaw and Dan Carter we have seen two colossal players, the gritty McCaw and Carter’s mercurial genius. Winning this World Cup is indeed their crowning achievement, their best them in the All Black jersey. Say what you will about McCaw he has given everything for the jersey which is all you can ask at international level but maybe it is time for him to sort his equilibrium out, the number of times he lost balance at an Australian tackle situation falling towards the ball was most unfortunate but in all seriousness, what an incredible warrior he has been for his team.

In 2017 the British and the Irish Lions will take on the World Champions and that Test series may have just been elevated to epic proportions.