There was a point last year at which my husband and I had a semi-serious discussion about joining a tour taking British and Irish Lions fans to New Zealand. This arose from a small dinner party chez nous post-food relaxed discussion about our contemplated ‘retirement’ years and a challenge whereby each couple present nominated a bucket list of five items we might like to do or see before we popped our clogs.
In our case going a Lions tour to New Zealand had the advantage of ticking two boxes, if you see what I mean – previously neither of us had been on one, nor to New Zealand.
Subsequently, as it were picking up the ball and running with it, we contacted a couple of specialist travel agents to see what was on offer. In the end, however, we were eventually put off by a combination of the implications of being ‘on tour’ with 25,000 others on a similar mission in a land whose infrastructure wasn’t designed to cope with such an influx and, as just as important, the rather steep all-in ‘per person’ costs being quoted.
Oh, and (though we didn’t admit this to anyone) the very real possibility that, on the playing side of things, at some point that it was all going to go belly-up and get really rather depressing.
I suppose one could claim that in a practical sense, by abandoning said project, the pair of us were making a minor statement in the ongoing Rust debate about which of physically attending sporting events live, or alternatively watching them via the modern era’s generally excellent television coverage, was the superior way of getting one’s sporting ‘fix’.
Nevertheless, having made our choice, we are now reduced to following the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand on the UK’s Sky Sports channels.
The first notable aspect of this became apparent last Thursday, when a girlfriend rang me about our proposed meeting on Saturday in the late morning for a coffee and stroll through the high street and in passing complained that her husband had already announced his plans for that day – he would be making his own breakfast and did not wish to be disturbed at any point between 7.30am and 11.00am because he would be in front of the television and unavailable [watching the Lions play their opening match against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians XV].
The irony was that my own plans were not dissimilar to her husband’s albeit that, as things panned out yesterday, I personally could have done without my dear spouse’s increasing-agitated phone-calls to his pals at half-time, each of them merely making the same points as Sky Sports’ pundits Will Greenwood, Keith Wood, Ian McGeechan and Sean Fitzpatrick had just expressed, only louder.
But now to the matter at hand.
Yesterday’s laboured and disappointing 13-7 victory over what was effectively a scratch side of second-tier NZ rugby players, many of them either amateurs and/or those who had tried out for (and failed at) one of the Kiwis’ professional franchise clubs was only to be expected.
Let’s get the explanations that could double-up as excuses in first.
The Lions only arrived on Wednesday and – because most of them had been playing in the Pro 12 or Aviva Premiership Finals – (via protocol and a rare nod to player welfare) the bulk of the likely Test team were not available to start the game.
Even though those who were always going to play in this game had been in each other’s company for two and a half weeks, that’s not long to bond, gain a common mindset and learn all the team plays and calls, let alone practise them.
Okay, even allowing for jet lag and lack of preparation time, as all with experience of New Zealand have been telling us, this type of performance was not one for the Lions to write home about. Let’s just record it as a win …. and move on.
We need to do that because the first match against a NZ franchise, albeit perhaps one of the weakest ones (The Blues), comes roaring over the horizon on Wednesday.
This was a badly under-cooked display by the Lions. The game opened with a complete failure by the Lions to gather the ball from the kick-off followed by two and a half minutes of relentless Barbarians pressure. The tourists were playing as if suffering from a collective hangover.
You could tell they had international class but they were firing on just two cylinders. Fluffed passes, silly knock-ons, over-ambitious plays that didn’t come off – all these were evidence of a machine spluttering into life with the choke full on … but then cutting out, as sometimes happens to all of us who own motor mowers.
The ball in NZ is lighter, thinner and has slightly different qualities in flight to those Northern Hemisphere players are used to. However, the truth is that yesterday Johnny Sexton had a bit of a nightmare and was replaced on 48 minutes by Owen Farewell, allegedly his chief rival for the Test fly half slot, who was then noticeably better in practically all departments.
Others who ‘lost ground’ in terms of future selections in my book were Stuart Hogg at full back, Greig Laidlaw at scrum half and Jonathan Joseph at 13 (outside centre), the last of whom only because he was largely anonymous.
Those who stood out were Toby Faletau (Number 8), who played outstandingly, and Ross Moriarty (Number 6, blind side flanker) – both of them Welsh – and Ben T’eo (the NZ-born centre cast as an impact sub by Eddie Jones but here gaining his starting debut with the Lions) who punched holes in midfield and was dynamic throughout.
They were not awed in the slightest by the heritage and reputation of the Lions – they saw it more as a challenge to be met. They had come to play and give it a real ‘go’.
Which they did.
And they could easily have won the game, granted the rub of the green. The thing about NZ players is that, whatever their position on the field, they are all natural rugby players.
One telling piece of information I read somewhere last week was the report that 78% of Kiwis recently surveyed could not name a single Lions player. This is not a deliberate insult, you understand, just a symptom of their one-eyed approach to rugby and life. No airs and graces, on the rugby field New Zealanders just go out and play whatever is in front of them – reputations don’t matter a fig. Even though arch-Kiwi pundit Sean Fitzpatrick irritates me to distraction with his underlying arrogance that NZ rugby is infinitely superior to anything offered by the Northern Hemisphere, it is sometimes impossible to deny a suspicion in the pit of your stomach that he may just be right.
In summary, therefore, thus far the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand is pretty much going exactly as expected …