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