The Wrap: Lions draw series, is rugby’s power shift north on?

Geoff Parkes Columnist

By , Geoff Parkes is a Roar Expert

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    Anyone who follows rugby knows that commercial power in the game is held in the northern hemisphere and that, historically, the on-field strength resides in the south.

    While the drawn series between the All Blacks and the Lions was just another three games of rugby – damn fine ones at that – in time it may come to be seen as an indicator of an on-field power shift as well.

    Consider the following. At the 2015 World Cup, SANZAAR provided all four semi-finalists. But in 2016 Australia won only six Tests from 15 and South Africa just four from 12, in a wretched season that included losses to Ireland at home, Italy (for the first time ever) and a record 57-15 home defeat to New Zealand.

    Argentina clearly regressed last year and SANZAAR’S flagship competition, Super Rugby, is in a state of chaos.

    It is only New Zealand that has stood strong, a loss to an excellent Irish side in Chicago nothing out of the ordinary for a side operating at a 90 per cent win ratio in the Steve Hansen era.

    Coming into this Lions series, those with a close eye on rugby in the UK knew that the visitors had enough talent to trouble the All Blacks if they could keep their squad tight and together for the final weeks of a punishingly long season. But even so, there were very few predicting that the speed and ruthless nature of the All Blacks’ game would ensure anything other than a home victory.

    As it happened, coach Warren Gatland’s first choice selections stayed largely intact throughout the whole tour, the attrition rate remarkably low. And potential internal problems with team spirit, prevalent on the 2001 tour to Australia and the 2005 tour of New Zealand, were well anticipated and avoided this time around.

    There was the usual inflammatory rubbish from a minority of ill-informed local press, aimed at achieving I’m not exactly sure what, but key for Gatland was his ability to keep the UK press onside with his mission. Touring players care nothing for a local New Zealand paper dressing their coach as a clown, but potential insecurities are easily bought to the surface when their own press turns on the playing group.

    Warren Gatland British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/David Rowland)

    That they never did was due to two things. Gatland got most of his selections right, so there was very little room for dissent among commentators with a different agenda to push. The other reason was that his ‘Saturday’ team performed right from the get-go, the win against the Crusaders crucially establishing a demarcation line where criticism could be made of the lesser performing midweek side without it impacting on the Test side.

    Also pivotal was Sean O’Brien’s try in the first Test. Despite the 30-15 loss, the Lions gave themselves and their supporters belief by scoring one of the great Test tries; one that most fans would have expected to have come from the All Blacks.

    In the wake of Saturday’s 15-15 result, one telling statistic emerged. Across the three Tests, for 240 minutes of rugby, the Lions led for only three of those minutes. That they were dominated for long periods but were able to escape with a drawn series speaks to a combination of their tenacity, off-key execution by the All Blacks (not totally unrelated to the first point), and some good fortune.

    Restricting the All Blacks to five tries across the series was key for the Lions. The All Blacks were tactically innovative in the first Test, too conservative in the second (even with the loss of Sonny Bill Williams) and typically creative in the third. Opportunities came, but they were all hard won, and the Lions’ defence in the secondary field, in particular, was exemplary. This was a team with a heady blend of spirit, desire and sound technique.

    Note how superbly the Lions scrambled back when, during a pulsating opening quarter, their own attack was killed dead by a Beauden Barrett intercept. Against any other side, this would have resulted in an All Black try. And when Barrett and Aaron Smith pulled the same move, flat off a scrum, that bought a try in Dublin, this time Conor Murray was in position to shut it down.

    The All Blacks will be bitterly disappointed with their lack of clinical precision under pressure when the game was there to be won. Opting to play at the gain line creates pressure in itself, but it is something they welcome, happy to trade-off the risk of some spilt ball against splitting the defence open for tries like the beauty scored by Jordie Barrett.

    But there was added pressure in this match. The atmosphere in the stadium resembled the Colosseum, and when the game tensed up it the second half – even more so when Jerome Kaino was sin-binned – the match took on the feel of the knee-trembling 2011 World Cup final.

    Some will point to the missed try-scoring opportunities in the first half, with Julian Savea’s early fumble a crucial error. But even so, the All Blacks went to halftime well in control, and it was their inability to convert second-half field position through a series of handling mistakes that cruelled their momentum and kept the Lions in the contest.

    All Blacks British and Irish Lions Romain Poite Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/ David Rowland)

    In that context, missed opportunities from Wellington also take on heavier importance. How must Beauden Barrett want his second-half grubber kick back again. A touch softer or straighter and Kieran Read scores, and the series is already won.

    That outcome would, of course, have denied us the theatre and occasion of a deciding Test, which is everything the brilliant travelling fans, and the Lions concept, deserved. Make no mistake, when the euphoria dies down and the grind of the Premiership starts up again, there will be more agitating against the Lions from clubs who neither see nor care for rugby’s bigger picture.

    Ignore also those claiming that this series is somehow diminished by there not being a winner. When two noble sides slug it out to the death, a draw is an entirely valid result, and the images of Read and Sam Warburton holding the trophy together do far more for the enhancement of the highest values of sport than any contrived deciding mechanism could ever do.

    That said, the question of whether the match should have ended in a draw cannot be avoided. Like a slow-motion car crash moment, there was a sense of inevitability that the match, and series would hinge on a controversial refereeing call.

    Romain Poite, in my view, made two critical errors. In the first, he essentially had to decide between three options – penalty against Read for interference in the air, penalty against Ken Owens for playing the ball in an offside position, or a scrum against Owens for doing so accidentally.

    Having ruled the contest in the air fair, Poite somehow chose the third option, when there appeared to be far stronger cases for either of the first two. Owens catching and dropping the ball like a hot potato was no more accidental than any player immediately putting his hand up to acknowledge an unintentional reflex high tackle; it’s still a high tackle and still penalizable. Owens’ catch was instinctive, not accidental.

    Poite’s other mistake, one with more important overtones, was to allow an on-field negotiation to take place and to be talked into a review, instead of trusting his instinct as an experienced referee. It was as if he knew how high the stakes were, with only two minutes left to play, but it makes no sense to treat a decision in the 78th minute differently from one in the eighth.

    From here, it is a very short and slippery slope into cricket’s world of player challenges, and umpires bottling tough decisions and allowing matches to be determined by video.

    As for Poite watching the video and confirming to TMO George Ayoub that he was staying with his original decision of a penalty against Owens, but then, in walking across to the mark, somehow deciding to award a scrum instead? Well, perhaps something was lost somewhere in translation.

    Discussion about the ruling in no way assumes that Barrett would have made the kick anyway. I know I wouldn’t have bet my house on it.

    It is wrong to consider a drawn series against this Lions side a definite marker of decline in New Zealand rugby. The Wallabies are about to find out how much firepower this side still has in its kit bag. But the world rugby paradigm is shifting and any All Blacks fans who choose to ignore this are simply denying the inevitable.

    New Zealand has enjoyed a golden age that, hopefully, still has some time to run yet. But important indicators are stacking up against them. Demographics, economics, the historical development of other professional sports such as football, and the decline of its southern hemisphere allies all point to more difficult days ahead for New Zealand rugby.

    If Saturday night’s result feels like a loss for New Zealand it at least should help ensure that the Lions are still around to tour in another twelve years’ time. But don’t be surprised if a drawn series in 2029, in a rugby world dominated by the north, this time feels like a win for New Zealand.

    As if to illustrate the point about the fading light of southern hemisphere rugby, Super Rugby in Australia continued its year from hell, with three contrasting matches doing nothing to cheer local fans.

    If SANZAAR can change the number of teams mid-stream, surely they can also change the qualifying conditions for the finals. On the evidence of their showing in Brisbane, the Brumbies have no hope of progressing and are wholly underserving of a home final.

    It is hard to imagine a worse game of rugby, so deficient of skill, than what the Reds and Brumbies dished up on Friday night. The heavy fog that settled over the match was a telling metaphor for Australian rugby, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing for it to block out the game altogether.

    Scott Fardy Brumbies Rugby Union Super Rugby 2017

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    Over in Perth the Force and Rebels played like two sides angry with themselves, each other and their situation. That the Force were that bit nigglier and their sledging that bit trashier was enough to win them the battle, but perhaps not the war.

    Injured Force skipper Matt Hodgson bought the teams together on the field after the match ended in a nice moment of solidarity. Players who had been tearing each other’s headgear off and questioning their respective mother’s morals were suddenly united in sharing an ‘up yours’ to the ARU.

    Spurning the opportunity for at least one Australian side to do something positive, the Waratahs could only scrape the bottom of an already sorry barrel, losing 40-27 to the Jaguares who, for a period in the middle of the match, only had 13 players on the field.

    When the knives are sharpened for Michael Cheika, as they inevitably will be at some point during the Rugby Championships, critics will do well to look back at this round of matches and consider the raw material he has to work with.

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