The epic centre of the Lions
WYNNE GRAY IS A FORMER SENIOR RUGBY WRITER AT THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD.
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.