Rugby gets a shot in the arm

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

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.”

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