Lions: Epic contest will go down in annals of rugby history
It wasn’t Barbarian rugby and it was never going to be, but what the world witnessed in Auckland on Saturday was an epic sporting contest, a gripping rugby showdown and a match to stand the test of time. If this didn't challenge your sporting emotions then I doubt anything ever will.
Sporting preference, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but a spectacle like this should cross every sporting bias and be appreciated for what it is: professional rugby players at the very pinnacle of their careers giving their all and leaving nothing behind.
We in this country love our Gaelic games and I am as passionate a fir Gael as any, but because we lack that international dimension the appreciation is insular. Rugby is not soccer in terms of global popularity, but it is growing and what we saw in Eden Park took the game further up that road. At times I despair when physicality dominates freedom of expression, essentially through coaches of limited moral courage.
Warren Gatland exacts varying emotions. People tend to like him or loathe him and while I’m not in the latter category, neither am I in the former. However, no matter what your opinion on the man you cannot but respect what he has achieved over the last five weeks.
To suggest in the aftermath of the first Test trashing that the Lions would share the series over the following fortnight seemed ludicrous.
Yes, they had a swing in momentum through Sonny Bill Williams’ moment of madness in Wellington, but discipline is as much a part of the three Test package as is point scoring.
The loss of Williams was massive and let’s not pretend otherwise. It meant New Zealand needed a huge change in tactical emphasis — Steve Hansen has now discovered a raft of midfield alternatives.
Even prior to Williams’ exit Gatland was bold in his selection and brave in his ambition, not least in the selection of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell at 10 and 12, and also in changing two of the back three through Elliot Daly and Liam Williams for the experienced and expected nod to George North and Leigh Halfpenny respectively.
He went with his gut, and no doubt the advice of Rob Howley and Andy Farrell, and it paid dividends.
In the process it made the Lions challenge so much more potent going into games two and three. Credit must also go for sticking to his guns in relation to the Welsh players who have delivered for their country and the Lions.
I am thinking specifically of Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones and Jonathan Davies. Davies has been majestic for the second Lions tour in a row, while Warburton more than justified his selection as captain and chief scavenger at the breakdown ahead of our own Peter O’Mahony.
Warburton and Davies, along with Maro Itoje — second only to Davies for Lions player of the tour — were immense in Auckland when eking out a share of the spoils. They may have come up just short on Lions immortality, but the bravest of the brave they assuredly are. Warburton, just like Kieran Read, is a humble man and a special type of leader to rank with the very best.
From an Irish perspective, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray and Tadgh Furlong were the stand-out performers. It is probably unfair to single out any one player because all three were sure-fire Test selections, but Furlong just goes from strength to strength. The proud New Ross man already ranks alongside Syd Millar, Sean Lynch, Nicky Popplewell and Paul Wallace in the list of all-time Lions propping greats. It’s some achievement at this stage in his developing career.
Had Beauden Barrett landed at least four more kickable goals in the final two Tests then the All Blacks could, and should, have won. He was pure brilliance in everything else he did, but the pressure told and Farrell won the battle of the boot.
The refereeing decision to downgrade the last-minute penalty to accidental and a scrum was harsh given the laws, but that is why they are called laws and not rules, so that they allow for refereeing interpretation. Despite suggestions to the contrary, neither Romain Poite nor Jerome Garces cost the All Blacks the winning of the series.
Should there have been an allowance for an outright winner through a golden point type system or extra time? Possibly so, although I do have mixed feelings on that. Another topic for another day.
The Lions didn’t win the series, but they performed way better than any of us expected and count me in that. Hansen deemed it “a reality check”, but I still believe New Zealand rugby to be operating on a different level.
For now it brings the curtain down on a dramatic series, one that even the most blinkered rugby critic can appreciate for honesty.