As the dust begins to settle on an epic Lions test series that seemed to have it all, the usual questions have been asked of the place the great touring side should have in today’s modern rugby world. 12 years ago the Lions returned from New Zealand beaten, battered and broken of spirit. An embarrassingly one-sided test series ended with the All Blacks class of ’05 inflicting a 3-0 whitewash on the so-called best of Britain & Ireland. Eight years on from their last series victory, in South Africa, and four years after a disappointing tour of Australia both on and off the field, and the future of the Lions seemed to hanging by a thread.
To the great credit of the touring sides of 2009 and 2013, pride and honour was restored to the red jersey, first with a heroic failure against world champions South Africa, and then with a historic first series victory in 16 years in Australia. However the visit of the Lions to the Land of the Long White Cloud came with dark clouds once again circling those British and Irish players. Returning to one of the darkest periods in Lions history, the class of 2017 had on them an awesome responsibility to prove once and for all that the Lions were still a powerful and towering presence within world rugby.
What followed was perhaps the most epic test series in recent Lions history.
Having been convincingly beaten in the first test in Auckland by an All Blacks side who looked a class above the touring side, many British and Irish rugby fans were convinced that history would repeat itself and the Lions would once again succumb to a 3-0 series defeat. Everywhere you looked in that first test it was as if the men in black were rewinding the clock. For Dan Carter and Richie McCaw in 2005, read Beauden Barrett and Sam Cane in 2017. The Lions may have produced one of THE great rugby tries with a length-of-the-field team effort finished off by Irishman Sean O’Brien, but the Lions were soundly beaten in all areas with the All Blacks controlling proceedings throughout with returning skipper Kieran Read in particular starring for the hosts. A Codie Taylor try and a brace of scores from Rieko Ioane sealed a deserved 30-15 win for the hosts.
By the time the Second test in Wellington came around it was clear that changes were needed for the Lions if they were to save the series. Having lost the battle at the breakdown and been physically dominated by the All Blacks pack, Gatland decided to bring in Englishman Maro Itoje to replace compatriot George Kruis in the second-row whilst tour captain Sam Warburton was promoted from the bench to replace Irishman Peter O’Mahony, the captain for the first test. In the backs, centre Ben Te’o dropped to the bench despite a strong display wearing the No.12 jersey in the first test, with Owen Farrell moved across to play centre and Jonny Sexton brought in from the bench to play fly-half. After a cagey opening from both sides, the match swung into life when All Blacks No.12 Sonny Bill Williams was sent off for an illegal shoulder charge to the head of Lions wing Anthony Watson. With New Zealand now forced to play nearly an hour with 14 men, the Lions were given a golden opportunity to get back into the series. However not for the first time on tour discipline proved to be the Lions undoing as a succession of penalties allowed New Zealand to build a nine-point lead approaching the hour mark. With both sides having shown little in attack, it seemed that the match and with-it the series was slipping away from the Lions grasps. With the clock against the Lions, penalties were no longer good enough for Gatland’s men and led superbly by the likes of Warburton and Farrell, they finally took the game to New Zealand in attack and were rewarded with tries for Taulupe Faletau and Connor Murray. With the scores tied 21-21 it was up to Owen Farrell to deliver the crucial match-winning penalty just minutes from the end which won the match for the Lions and took the series to a decider back in Auckland.
Having levelled the series in Wellington, the Lions coaches decided to stick with the same XV for the deciding third test at Eden Park. Still stinging from their first defeat on home soil since 2009, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen made a number of changes amongst his backline with Hurricanes pair Jordie Barrett and Julian Savea coming into the back three. Unsurprisingly it was New Zealand who came flying out of the traps in Auckland and in a first-half where they threw everything at the Lions defence, tries from Ngani Laumpae and Jordie Barrett saw the hosts take a 12-6 lead into the half-time break. Despite being six points down, the Lions themselves could be quietly satisfied with how the half had gone, with the All Blacks guilty of leaving a few tries out on the pitch due to handling errors and a lack of execution in a half that they dominated. The second-half was a more even affair with neither side getting many opportunities in attack. Penalties from Elliot Daly and Owen Farrell levelled the scores up on the hour mark, before Beauden Barrett restored New Zealand’s lead with another penalty following Kyle Sinckler’s infringement at a scrum. Having stepped up the week before to kick the Lions to victory, it was Owen Farrell once again who proved to be the Lions saviour with the Englishman showing nerves of steel to nail a long-range penalty to tie the scores at 15-15. Late drama ensued with a penalty awarded to New Zealand for offside from the kick-off, a call which was eventually reduced to a scrum for accidental offside before from the resulting scrum Jordie Barrett escaped the clutches of the Lions defence only to be brought down just short of the try-line and dragged into touch, with the match and series ending in an improbable draw.
So how will this tour be remembered?
A draw was obviously not the result that the Lions set out to achieve when they left for New Zealand. However having at times been ridiculed by the New Zealand media and after losing the first test, to come back and salvage an unlikely draw is a magnificent achievement.
Having been branded a clown by the media, New Zealander Gatland has answered his critics in his home country with yet another successful Lions tour that boosts his success-laden CV even further. Renowned for his ‘WarrenBall’ style of play, the decision to start Ben Te’o at centre will have come as no surprise to many rugby supporters but despite putting in a strong showing in the first test in Auckland, Gatland made one of the biggest calls of his career in dropping Te’o and going with a Jonny Sexton-Owen Farrell midfield partnership for the second test. In picking the likes of Liam Williams and Elliot Daly over Leigh Halfpenny and George North he once again went against his usual instincts and picked players on form. With Williams and Daly helping conjure up that magical try in the first test and causing New Zealand no end of problems in attack Gatland was vindicated for his selection, just as he was by the extra attacking dimension that Sexton and Farrell brought to midfield in the second test where they combined to set up the tries that won the match and levelled the series. Alongside Gatland, his coaching staff also played significant roles. Andy Farrell’s organisational skills were evident in a strong Lions defence, the attacking imagination served up by the likes of Williams, Daly and Jonathan Davies was a credit to the work done by Rob Howley, the pack held their own both in the scrum and line-out due to the excellent work carried out by Graham Rowntree and Steve Borthwick, whilst the accuracy of the goal-kicking which proved so crucial in the final two tests was in no small part down to the help of kicking coach Neil Jenkins.
In the red-hot atmosphere of the test matches, the Lions players produced the goods with Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies and Connor Murray excelling in attack, whilst up-front Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong and Taulupe Faletau were outstanding throughout the series both in defence and attack. Maro Itoje’s energy and enthusiasm brought a new lease of life to second-row partner Alun Wyn Jones, whilst Courtney Lawes’ exemplary work-rate across the whole series was rewarded with test caps that looked unlikely at the start of the tour. With Leigh Halfpenny missing from the test team, Owen Farrell took the responsibility of goal-kicking on to his shoulders and kept his nerve when those around him were losing theirs. Despite not playing any part in the test series, players such as Dan Biggar, Rory Best and James Haskell showed their professionalism in never letting their levels drop and played a significant role in some big performances in the lead-up to the test matches, and the quality of players to choose from could not be greater signified than the likes of Jonathan Joseph, Justin Tipuric and Iain Henderson missing out on test places.
Amongst the players there were also great stories. As captain of Munster during a season in which his coach and mentor Anthony Foley tragically passed away, Irishman Peter O’Mahony showed great courage in leading his club under the most difficult of circumstances to the semi-finals of the Champions Cup and the final of the Pro12. Ousted from the Ireland team by club-mate CJ Stander it looked as if O’Mahony’s Lions chances had gone but a man-of-the-match performance against England paved the way for an incredible journey that ended with him becoming a Lions test captain. For tour captain Sam Warburton missing out on selection for the first test must have hurt, but the Welshman showed a captain’s humility in accepting the decision before working hard to force his way back in to lead the side so impressively in the final two tests. The respect in which Warburton is held by others was also evident in Romain Poite’s decision to listen to Warburton’s advice to review the late penalty given in the third test, a decision which ultimately saved the series. A two-times Lions tour captain, unbeaten in both test series, his place in Lions history is secure forever. For the All Blacks, there was the return of talismanic captain Kieran Read, returning from injury in the first test to deliver a tour-de-force performance before going back to Auckland to reach the incredible milestone of 100 All Blacks test caps in the final test, whilst in Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett the All Blacks have found the new stars of New Zealand rugby.
There were moments of class throughout from Codie Taylor’s expert pick-up and acceleration for the opening try of the test series to Sexton and Farrell’s immaculate link-up play in the second test, whilst the sheer number of Lions fans in New Zealand and the atmosphere they helped create was something you had to see to believe.
A drawn test series that will be more well-received by the Lions than their hosts, both sides will look back on what could have been. What if Be Te’o hadn’t slipped in attack when he had numbers outside him in the first test at a time when the game was in the balance? What if Beauden Barrett hadn’t missed those kicks at goal in the second test in Wellington?
Ultimately it wasn’t to be for either side with the scenes at the final whistle in the third test at Eden Park telling the story of an epic test series, players out on their feet with nothing left to give, minds racing thinking of opportunities missed.
A series with no loser, and a tour for the ages, the Lions of 2017 have preserved the standing and legacy of this great touring side for decades to come.