NOBLE DRAW IS A WIN-WIN FOR CAPTAIN SAM’S PROUD LIONS
The first Sam Warburton knew about it was when All Blacks players started striding towards him with their hands outstretched. ‘I was expecting to go again,’ said the captain of the British and Irish Lions.
‘I didn’t realise it was a drawn series. I was ready for another 10 minutes each way, so I was planning on drinking as many electrolytes as I could, because I was cramping up. The next thing people were coming up to me to shake hands and I was like: ‘‘Oh, it’s a draw’’.’
And, yes, in the moment, the mood at eden Park did fall a little flat. Locals streamed for the exits, seemingly unmoved by the commemoration of Kieran Read’s 100th cap that would follow the final whistle, while even the Lions fans appeared somewhat bemused.
edging away from Steve hansen’s rather dubious analogy of kissing a sister, it was like getting to the last 20 minutes of
Breaking Bad only to have someone walk in and turn the channel over. ‘er, excuse me, I was watching that,’ you might say. ‘And I really wanted to see how it ended.’
Yet we’ve got a day or so of hindsight now and, one senses, attitudes are changing. There is something very decent, very noble, in deciding to shake hands and call it even.
Yes, sportsmen are programmed for victory. Warburton said it would have been nice to find a winner. But he wasn’t raging about it. he wasn’t angrily frustrated. he didn’t blame the authorities for their oversight or call for changes in the future. One imagines, the further away he gets from the heat of battle, he will reflect and smile and conclude that, all things considered, a draw was a very good result indeed.
he’s that kind of guy. A great Lion; and this tour is about nothing if not decency and honour. It is a gallant quest, handed down from generation to generation, imbued with history and fine tradition. That’s what makes it different.
The Lions players were promised a win bonus. Was there a bonus for not losing? Tour manager John Spencer looked puzzled. If there was, nobody had mentioned it. Certainly not the players. Being part of the Lions was worth a little bit more than that, anyway. And what would have happened, say, had an extra- time drop- kick decided more than four hours of blood, sweat and cheers?
Would the stadium sound system have played that infernal Queen song, with its overblown, uncharitable insistence that we afford no time for losers? Sorry, Freddie, but God save us from that.
Not all losers are deserving, flawed or even weak. had the All Blacks fallen to a penalty in overtime they would have surrendered the series having been behind for only three minutes in 240 of normal Test rugby. And we should serenade them with a message of dismissive contempt?
In total, the All Blacks led for two hours and 53 minutes over three Tests; for a further one hour and four minutes scores between the teams were level; that leaves between the 77th and 80th minute of the second Test in Wellington, when the Lions had the upper hand, by the mighty margin of three points.
To pull off a series draw in the circumstances is little short of heroic; but we should also acknowledge there is great decency in the hosts accepting it is right and fair that the prize should be shared.
There have been moans about the reversed penalty decision that snatched away an All Blacks victory, but no- one in black was prowling the team corridors at Eden Park demanding a chance to finish the tourists off and send them home vanquished. All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino summed up the mutual respect when the time came for team photographs.
‘He suggested both groups of players mixed in together,’ said Warburton. ‘I thought that was a nice touch.’
The same when it came to swapping shirts. ‘A few lads came in after the game,’ continued Warburton. ‘ That’s pretty rare, I know, because the All Blacks don’t give their shirts away. The fact they came in shows how much they respect the Lions. I think Lions shirts are gold dust to us, just as All Blacks shirts are gold dust to them. So it’s a privilege to have one.’
Warburton already possessed an All Black souvenir from Wellington. Read’s No 8 shirt — on the occasion of his 99th cap — will hang proudly at home, beside his own from that Test and another Lions shirt from the first Test in Australia four years ago. Three shirts, three Lions mementos. They are the only ones that make it to the Warburton wall.
‘Kieran Read is one of the best players I have played against, ever,’ added Warburton. ‘So I was honoured when he asked me to swap shirts. People make up rivalries and stuff, but we’ve known these players for a long time. I played three Tests against them last year, three this year,ar, we’ve chatted quite a lot,ot, got to know them and they’re nice guys.
‘ It was reallyy enjoyable on the pitch. There’s a bit of niggle sometimes, but most of it you’re helping each other up off the floor and we’ve a lot of time for eachh other. There’s a lotot of good friendshipships across those two dress-dressing rooms. It soundsnds a bit cheesy, but rugby is the winner of this series.’
Warburton, too. He has now captained two Lions series, won the first, drawn the second. His deputy, Peter O’Mahony, was almost unnervingly quiet before the first Test, but the moment Warburton took over his superior leadership skills were entirely evident.
Warren Gatland even credited him with skilfully changing referee Romain Poite’s mind about the late penalty. Without doubt, Warburton would be a contender for any XV of greatest Lions; emerging as a leader who, vitally, also knew when to listen.
In the 41st minute, when Elliot Daly stood over the ball in the Lions half, Warburton had grave doubts he could make the distance. He takes up the story.
‘I consulted with Owen Farrell and I said, “Crikey, that’s quite far. Shall we go for the corner?” And he said, “Mate, Elliot’s got this”. So I picked up a bit of grass, threw it and saw there was a little bit of crosswind. So I said again, “Crikey, it’s a hell of kick”. But he insisted, “Mate, he’s got it”. So I took his word for it and Elliot took the three and when he jogged back, Owen just winked at me, like “I told you so”. So if he says he’s got it, he’s got it.
‘I trust those boys because they kick all the time and they know their range. The last two games Owen has been brilliant with the boot and it takes a lot of courage to do that. I usually have a preference over whether we go for three, but whenever I’ve asked him to do it, you can just tell he’s got nerves of steel and he says, “Yep, definitely” and bangs it over.
‘Out of all the guys I’ve played with there are certain guys you’d like to be in the trenches with and he’s one of them. He’s a guy other guys turn to. The phrase “natural leader” is thrown around a lot, but he’s a genuine, natural leader and winner. When I look back over my career he’ll be a player I’ll be really glad I got to play with.’
One imagines lifetime bonds have been made in these weeks in the southern hemisphere. Some were carried over from the previous tour to Australia and perhapshaps wiwill continue to South Africa if Gatland is retainedret as coach a secsecond time. What an achievement tthat would be.
And while aappointing a New Zealander to coach the BBritish and Irish LLions may seem a failure in one asaspect, what cannotnot be argued is that Gatland’s knowledgeedge of the local psyche was highly influential. Reflecting on the tour yesterday morning, he said he knew the hosts were rattled just from certain statements at press conferences.
‘ Someone mentioned that if they lost, the sun would come up tomorrow and it wouldn’t be the end of the world and they would learn from the experience,’ recalled Gatland.
‘Those are comments you don’t hear coming out of the New Zealand camp. They were a couple of weird things that you just thought — (pulls quizzical face).
‘The All Blacks are masters at not worrying about the opposition, just focusing on themselves, so we felt that tactically we made them play a little differently and they picked a team to combat our strengths and they don’t normally do that. I think that was a sign of respect for what we had achieved.’
And so, come the end, they shook hands, shared a trophy, shared a beer and vowed to do it all again in 12 years, with an entirely new set of personnel.
But the respect will be there and the history and the tradition, because that is what Lions tours are about. Sometimes it really is a win-win.
ShareS of theth spoils: Maro Itoje st starred in a another epic scrap (main), th then Read ( (left)l and W held the Warburton tr trophy (i (inset) Wh