Belfast Telegraph

Lions: The pressure cooker of a NZ tour gets to everyone

 

By Alan Quinlan

Playing in New Zealand is an incredibly pressurised environment and that can get to referees as well as the players.

You need some decisions to go your way but you earn your luck and the Lions certainly did that over the last couple of weeks.

It was an incredible tour from start to finish and even though a draw was a strange way to end it, it was probably a fair outcome.

Both teams will have regrets, but when the All Blacks reflect on the series, they will feel that they let it slip, especially after getting off to such a good start in the first Test.

Steve Hansen kept his counsel when asked about Romain Poite's controversial call to change his decision from a penalty to a scrum but make no mistake about it, behind the scenes he will be fuming.

Between Sonny Bill Williams' red card last weekend and Poite not giving New Zealand what should have been a penalty, the French referees haven't endeared themselves to the Kiwis.

Poite changed his mind because he had time to think about his decision. For me, the magnitude of the occasion got to him. He backed out of it, there is no two ways about it.

But that said, the law states that if a ball comes off a player from in front of them and hits another player accidentally, it's deemed to be a scrum. Again, it's one that's down to interpretation. It's certainly not black and white.

I think the Lions were lucky to get away with it. Poite made the decision to give the penalty, which was the correct one but the Lions players put him under pressure to look at Kieran Read's challenge in the air.

Sam Warburton asked Poite to check for accidental offside - it was an excellent piece of captaining. I had the ref link on and it was amazing to listen to the difference in both captains' approach.

Read was constantly in Poite's face questioning decisions and asking him to double check stuff. Warburton didn't do that at all but it was arguably more effective because the crucial decision went in his side's favour.

There was a strange atmosphere inside the stadium after full time. Players and fans alike were really deflated. There was no doubt that it was a disappointing end to what has been a brilliant tour.

Everyone wanted to see extra time and I was certainly in agreement. There should have been some sort of plan in place to have an outright winner. It's probably something that will have to be looked at for future tours.

I couldn't get over the intensity that both sides played with. The hits that were going in were phenomenal and being at the game really gave me a greater appreciation of how physical it was.

The All Blacks looked very nervy but that all came about from the pressure that the Lions put them under. It is incredible to think that the Lions only led for three minutes in the entire series.

The biggest positive for the Lions was their defence. Andy Farrell has to take huge credit for how they performed in the second and third Tests. The line speed was very impressive and they ended up making New Zealand look human.

In the first Test, I think they were caught off guard by the intensity that the All Blacks brought but since that defeat, they have been excellent.

The ambition that the Lions played with has to be applauded. At times their execution let them down but they surprised a lot of people.

There is no doubt that the Lions rode their luck but you need that rub of the green when you're touring New Zealand. Beauden Barrett's kicking wasn't up to scratch and it cost his side.

If he converts the second try, the score goes to 14-6 and it's a two-score game. It felt like a huge moment at the time and it proved to be because the momentum shifted back in the Lions' favour and gave them even more belief.

On Saturday, they passed up two or three gilt-edged try-scoring chances which is so unlike them. The All Blacks always pride themselves on their skills but they have quite a bit of work to do before the Rugby Championship.

With a bit more control, the Lions could have won the series and for all the credit they deserve for drawing it, like the All Blacks they will have regrets.

Particularly in the period when Jerome Kaino was in the sin bin. I was very surprised that they didn't try and drive the three lineouts that they got. You could feel the atmosphere changing inside the stadium and that was the time to really try and take them on up front.

They only managed to score three points when Kaino was off the pitch and that was a let off. The Lions should have kept seven forwards in the lineout and tried to maul them with an extra man. Kaino is incredibly powerful and causes such destruction in the maul. The Lions should have capitalised on his absence.

I think Northern Hemisphere rugby needed a result like because there is no doubt that the there was a lot of doom and gloom in this part of the world after the World Cup.

With all four Southern Hemisphere teams in the semi-finals, the balance of power was certainly with them, but after Ireland's win in Chicago and now the Lions, it will give plenty of other teams hope that the All Blacks are not the invincible force many believe they are.

From an Irish point of view, it was a really positive tour. Sean O'Brien was immense. He was unfortunate to have to go off injured but he had already re-announced himself on the world stage.

Any time the Ireland play New Zealand, O'Brien is always the first player that they mention. There is a reason why they fear him.

At this stage, we shouldn't be surprised at Johnny Sexton's mental strength but the manner in which he bounced back from not starting the first Test was hugely impressive. Once again, he answered his critics in the only way he knows how. He is an outstanding player.

For all of the good memories, you've got to feel for Peter O'Mahony because he didn't do much wrong to be dropped but no one can ever take away the fact that he captained the Lions in a Test. An incredible achievement that shouldn't be glossed over.

Belfast Telegraph

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