The epic cen­tre of the Li­ons

WYNNE GRAY IS A FOR­MER SE­NIOR RUGBY WRITER AT THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD.

NZ Rugby World - - The Breakdown -

To push the dou­ble world cham­pion All Blacks so close, Davies said, was huge for him­self and ev­ery­one in the Li­ons who had worked so hard to find the right blend.’

SOME­HOW IN THE awk­ward af­ter­math of their drawn se­ries with the All Blacks, the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Li­ons found time to vote on their player of the se­ries.

They’d been through an un­easy pre­sen­ta­tion cer­e­mony at Eden Park where none of the play­ers quite knew how to re­act to the stale­mate.

The Li­ons looked more con­tent with the dead­lock than their hosts and that was un­der­stand­able.

If the All Blacks had been as ac­cu­rate as their pre­match in­ten­tions they would have sorted the se­ries in­side the first half. As it was they scored two tries and should have had a few more but missed their mo­ments in the face of the gritty Li­ons re­silience.

Even­tu­ally the All Blacks fluffed their lines even more and then lost the con­tentious off­side de­bate with Mon­sieur Poite in the dy­ing min­utes of the test af­ter the Li­ons had kicked their way to all square.

There were puz­zled looks all round when Poite called time and those con­tin­ued through­out the speeches and pre­sen­ta­tion to All Blacks skip­per Kieran Read for his 100th test.

When he and Li­ons leader Sam War­bur­ton hoisted aloft the se­ries sil­ver­ware, the pic­tures looked like a se­ries pre­view rather than the end of six weeks’ hard graft in New Zealand.

The book­ends of the tour could not have been more di­verse for the Li­ons who played with­out any class in their open­ing match against a pickup com­pos­ite side in Whangarei but squared the test se­ries.

Both Read and War­bur­ton picked their way care­fully through in­quiries about Poite and how he re­neged on his penalty de­ci­sion.

When the Li­ons got back into the safety of their dress­ing sheds they must have packed plenty of mirth, re­lief and sur­prise around em­braces of War­bur­ton who had pulled off one of the great rugby heists.

Gat­land al­ways wanted him as cap­tain, as much for his team man­age­ment and in­flu­ence on ref­er­ees, if he could get through his fit­ness is­sues and turn out in the loose for­wards.

The first test was a match too far for War­bur­ton but he started the next two for a win and a draw as the Li­ons pricked the All Blacks’ dom­i­nance. Once the hub­bub died down a bit in the dress­ing room, the Li­ons were asked to vote on their player of the se­ries.

Can­di­dates were plen­ti­ful, both backs and for­wards. War­bur­ton could have got it for his play and gen­er­al­ship, Jamie Ge­orge or Tadhg Fur­long for their ris­ing im­pact, Maro Itoje for his twin-start in­flu­ence or Sean O’Brien for his bristling de­fi­ance.

Be­hind them Conor Murray and Johnny Sex­ton showed their style and why they are rated so highly, Owen Far­rell kicked with un­nerv­ing ac­cu­racy and Jonathan Davies switched it up on at­tack and de­fence.

When the votes were tal­lied the drum roll came for Davies whose team­mates picked him as the Li­ons’ Lion.

It was an im­mensely proud mo­ment for the cen­tre who was an in­flu­en­tial player for Wales at the 2011 World Cup and dur­ing the Li­ons tour to Aus­tralia in 2013 but missed the 2015 World Cup be­cause of in­jury.

To push the dou­ble world cham­pion All Blacks so close, Davies said, was huge for him­self and ev­ery­one in the Li­ons who had worked so hard to find the right blend.

Davies did have an im­pres­sive test se­ries where he trou­bled the All Blacks’ de­fend­ers with his abil­ity to run into gaps, thump the odd kick down­town and lead the um­brella up and in rush de­fen­sive line, which caused so much hes­i­ta­tion for the All Blacks.

When they flinched about the kick, run, pass choices, the red de­fence squeezed tighter with Davies in the van­guard.

If that was a boost to his team then Itoje’s work in the tight five was equally in­valu­able. He was the baby of the squad but looked like an old hand in his pro­duc­tion.

Much is made in New Zealand of the re­lent­less pro­duc­tion from Brodie Re­tal­lick and that was on show for big chunks of this se­ries, but Itoje matched him when he got the chance.

The Li­ons picked him on the bench for the first test but scrubbed that cau­tion for the next two and got a sig­nif­i­cant reward from an­other of the new breed of locks with com­pre­hen­sive ath­letic skills cou­pled to a com­pet­i­tive fury.

Itoje was huge, a jewel for Gat­land and the Li­ons and some­one who should make Eddie Jones’ heart sing with Eng­land.

The All Blacks won’t tan­gle with Itoje and his English mates on the end of year tour, but he is sure to fig­ure large in their grill for many years to come.

TOP DOG The Li­ons voted Jonathan Davies as their player of the tour.

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