Rugby gets a shot in the arm
WELLINGTON: The latest British and Irish Lions tour may have ended in a stalemate, but it reinvigorated rugby in New Zealand, enhanced the reputation of its coach and gave the world champions a timely boost in terms of their World Cup planning.
Lions coach Warren Gatland had returned to his homeland with the express intent of becoming the second Lions side to win the Test series and if they dropped matches on the way so be it.
The thunderous Test series, however, ended locked at 1-1 after a 15-15 draw instantaneously sucked all of the electric energy out of a jam-packed Eden Park on Saturday and was something of a letdown.
“I think both sides would feel frustrated (but) I suppose we will reflect and say given the schedule and how tough the tour was to have come to New Zealand and drawn the series we will be pretty proud of that,” Gatland told reporters.
“Everyone wrote us off and people were talking about a 3-0 whitewash. This group of players have shown a tremendous amount of character.”
Character was not the only thing they showed.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen labelled them as “very good” before the tour and consistently described them as one of the best to have travelled to New Zealand “in a very long time”.
Many, however, had written their obituary after the first week. A lacklustre 13-7 victory against a team of semi-professionals was followed with a 22-16 loss to the Blues, New Zealand’s worst performing team this Super Rugby season.
Gatland put the uninspiring first seven days down to jet lag and a lack of preparation time and it was an issue tour manager John Spencer reiterated yesterday when he said the side would have achieved the series win if they had another week together.
The team started to find their feet in the second week with an impressive 12-3 victory over the seven-time Super Rugby champion Crusaders, dispelling many of the early concerns and they only got better throughout the tour.
Gatland also enhanced his reputation.
The former All Blacks hooker opted for two playmakers in Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell for the second and third Tests, which allowed his backline to showcase their enterprise and stretched the world champions defensively.
The tour was also undoubtedly an economic success with more than 20 000 Lions fans travelling to the country.
“It was great to see the way the nation got behind the ... series,” New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said yesterday. “Any questions on the future of the Lions series should be firmly put to bed given the extraordinary success of the past six weeks.”