The mag­i­cal mys­tery tour

TONY JOHN­SON IS A COM­MEN­TA­TOR AND PRE­SEN­TER FOR SKY TV’S RUGBY COV­ER­AGE IN NEW ZEALAND.

NZ Rugby World - - The Breakdown -

AND, SUD­DENLY, it was all over. That tour that we had waited 12 years for, fin­ished, noth­ing left but the sound of peo­ple count­ing their money, count­ing their losses, cling­ing to the mo­ments that lit it all up, won­der­ing who claimed the ‘moral vic­tory’ from a tied se­ries and whether there might be a good deal go­ing on a nearly new, brightly painted Land Rover.

It was ev­ery­thing a Li­ons tour has come to be in the mod­ern era. An epic bat­tle, rag­ing on and off the field laced with big hits, big mo­ments and con­tro­versy right to the wire.

On the field you had what was billed as a clash of rugby ideals, north­ern hemi­sphere mus­cle­bound drudgery against South Pa­cific wiz­ardry, although it never quite turned out to be that did it?

The All Blacks won the first test on for­ward power and lost the sec­ond be­cause they couldn’t score a try. Who put that in the script?

And then the third test, a dead­lock that stayed un­bro­ken be­cause of a rogue in­ter­pre­ta­tion of one of the few straight­for­ward laws in the game.

Oh yes, it had ev­ery­thing, all played out in front of heav­ing, vi­brant, noisy, and gen­er­ally good-na­tured crowds.

We did get what most neu­trals and even a good few New Zealan­ders wanted…a se­ries that was still up for de­ci­sion right to the death, a gen­uine con­test, way more than enough to sat­isfy those who were only a year ago grip­ing that there wasn’t enough com­pe­ti­tion to keep their lives in­ter­est­ing.

It was, from most points of view, a good tour. Far less grandiose and stage-man­aged than the last one, and a far bet­ter Li­ons team, maybe sim­i­lar in terms of the play­ing ros­ter, but so much bet­ter in terms of a cun­ning plan.

Forcing a de­cider was some­thing the 2005 lot never looked re­motely ca­pa­ble of.

This lot were good enough to se­verely rat­tle the cage of an All Blacks team that had not lost a home test in eight years. They can go home with heads held high.

The All Blacks will have been dis­ap­pointed not to take the se­ries. The Sonny Bill Wil­liams red card, fully jus­ti­fied, was with­out ques­tion a piv­otal mo­ment and they made too many un­char­ac­ter­is­tic mis­takes in the fi­nal test.

Their famed depth was stretched to the max­i­mum and the pres­ence of Ryan Crotty, Ben Smith, Wil­liams and Dane Coles was cer­tainly missed.

On an­other front there was a me­dia war. The first Li­ons tour to New Zealand to be played out in the full grip of the on­line rev­o­lu­tion, with its in­sa­tiable thirst for click­bait and its vi­cious com­ment sec­tions.

Has there ever been so much space de­voted to what sports writ­ers and sports fans were say­ing about each other?

Never mind anal­y­sis, provo­ca­tion has be­come a weapon of choice, and it got nasty.

Amongst the tour­ing me­dia was an el­e­ment ped­dling a lin­ger­ing colo­nial su­pe­ri­or­ity, ig­no­rant of indigenous cul­ture, full of in­grained sweep­ing gen­er­al­i­sa­tions of the ‘all Ki­wis are ar­ro­gant, New Zealand is in a time warp, all they think about is rugby’ va­ri­ety.

And on the other side, sec­tions of the New Zealand me­dia that shocked even then old guard of the tour­ing group, with in­flam­ma­tory reportage, a scathing and pre­ma­ture dis­missal of the Li­ons’ ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and the ju­ve­nile depths of putting a clown’s nose on the op­po­si­tion coach, the sort of thing The Sun was do­ing in the 1980s.

It was, of course, con­tro­ver­sial – ev­ery Li­ons tour is now. Think Gra­ham Henry in 2001, Brian O’Driscoll in 2005, Schalk Burger/Bakkies Botha in 2009, O’Driscoll again in 2013.

On this tour the con­tro­versy re­volved around the ref­er­ee­ing.

We have been re­peat­edly told of how ‘good’ the All Blacks are at rugby’s dark arts, how they clev­erly ma­nip­u­late the ref­er­ees, and how much they get away with be­cause it’s all blink-of-an-eye stuff. Some of that is quite true.

On this tour it was the Li­ons who won the bat­tle of those dark arts, blunt­ing the All Blacks’ at­tack with a rush de­fence that reg­u­larly cribbed half a me­tre.

Their de­ter­mi­na­tion to close the re­quired gap in the li­ne­out when­ever threat­ened only caught up with them in the last test, and they got away with at least two acts in the games in Welling­ton that war­ranted a red card.

Through it all Gat­land kept up a steady stream of com­plaints, stoop­ing to ac­cuse the All Blacks of de­lib­er­ately try­ing to in­jure his star half­back Conor Murray.

It may have paid off. In the end, for his share of the se­ries, Gat­land could thank a ref­eree who sim­ply didn’t have the guts to make what would most likely [goal kick­ing un­der pres­sure be­ing what it is] have been the se­ries de­cid­ing call against the Li­ons, no doubt mind­ful of the ridicu­lous up­roar that ac­com­pa­nied Scot­land’s quar­ter­fi­nal exit at the last world Cup, from an in­ci­dent that had some vague sim­i­lar­i­ties about it.

Even though the con­test was great and grip­ping, the Ro­main Poite call was in some ways an ap­pro­pri­ate bum note, be­cause the ref­er­ee­ing in this se­ries should have been a lot bet­ter, and it’s wor­ry­ing to think that with Alain Rol­land in charge at World Rugby, we are go­ing to see a lot more of these scatty French­men.

No re­view of a Li­ons tour is com­plete with­out men­tion of their fans.

Once again the tour was made great by the vis­it­ing throng of red-jack­eted sup­port­ers who found, with only a few ex­cep­tions, easy, wel­com­ing and of­ten gen­er­ous com­pany in New Zealan­ders and the vast ma­jor­ity of whom will go home with life­time mem­o­ries.

Yes, there were some who felt ripped off by the greed that has long been part of ma­jor events overseas and is now rife in New Zealand, the op­por­tunists joined, em­bar­rass­ingly, by the likes of the Welling­ton Coun­cil who wel­comed the army of Li­ons sup­port­ers to their city by tre­bling the price of their camper van parks.

But to min­gle with these fans and find out that they share the same love of the game, even if we ex­press it in dif­fer­ent ways, is a treat that hap­pens all too rarely.

It would be nice too, if just a lit­tle of their fab­u­lous, un­ceas­ing vo­cal sup­port could rub off on New Zealan­ders, and we could do away for­ever with the fee­ble ad-agency driven at­tempts to gen­er­ate a chant and the DJs with their spon­tane­ity killing music.

Fi­nally, it’s clear that this, one of the last great tra­di­tions of the game, has come un­der mas­sive threat from peo­ple who own rugby clubs and talk of play­ers as “as­sets’ and “in­vest­ments” – peo­ple who de­nied this 2017 team any chance of a de­cent prepa­ra­tion.

If some of the English clubs had their way, we would not see the Li­ons here again, and it seems they have won a trade off in hav­ing fu­ture tours re­duced to a mea­gre eight games.

I can­not re­call once read­ing about the in­ter­ests of the clubs of Wales, Ire­land or Scot­land, and it ap­par­ently mat­ters not one iota that the host na­tion has now been de­prived of two fan-pleas­ing, rev­enue­gen­er­at­ing fix­tures.

It would defy our own dig­nity to say we should be grate­ful that we will at least see them here again, but it is bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive.

Rugby, with­out the Li­ons, would die a lit­tle.

...it was the Li­ons who won the bat­tle of those dark arts, blunt­ing the All Blacks’ at­tack with a rush de­fence that reg­u­larly cribbed half a me­tre.’

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