The day Gat - and one-eyed Kiwis - knew this was a battle for the ages
June 10: Crusaders 3, The Lions 12
THE earth shook beneath the feet of the Lions the night the seeds of their heroic Test campaign were sown.
It was the second Saturday on tour and the first time Warren Gatland’s squad flexed their muscles. A team mocked for its lame, jet-lagged opening effort and then beaten on its second outing, finally bared its teeth.
Eight earthquakes registered that day in Christchurch, the largest 4.2 on the Richter scale. But the real shock was felt by those who had dismissed the Lions as no-hopers.
Beating the best franchise team in the southern hemisphere sent out a powerful message, particularly as the freescoring Crusaders were denied a single try.
There and then Warren Gatland identified the core of his Test team. The forward pack that day would start the series in Auckland a fortnight later, so too the midfield and halfbacks.
More than that the Lions found a template for winning rugby in New Zealand and a belief that, against all odds, success was achievable.
They even found time to try out Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell in midfield together. And so a squad greeted on arrival by a poll saying 78 per cent of Kiwis could not name one of them, forced New Zealand to take them seriously.
Yes, they blew midweek winning positions against the Blues, Highlanders and Hurricanes. But that helped the process of separating the wheat from the chaff.
When the Saturday team walloped the Maori All Blacks seven days before the First Test, only the oneeyed New Zealand Herald newspaper failed to see what was heading the way of the All Blacks.
If it did not show itself in that Eden Park opener, where the All Blacks’ astonishing intensity at the breakdown made them deserved winners, it was not long in coming.
Rescuing a share of the series from one-nil down against the back-to-back world champions amounted to a victory for Gatland, portrayed locally as a clown but actually the complete opposite.
He saw the merit in fielding playmakers Sexton and Farrell together, even though it meant relegating the excellent Ben Te’o to the bench.
He was not afraid to leave Sam Warburton out of the opener, sensing his captain’s time would come. He resisted demands Alun Wyn Jones lose his place after toiling in the opener.
And then, across the series, showed faith in the likes of Te’o, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler, yet to convince Eddie Jones they deserve England starts.
Only over the so-called Geography Six did Gatland lose his run-up, picking players on convenience rather than merit, then not having the courage to use them.
It was an isolated faux pas, one that won’t be forgotten given the fierce debate it generated over “devaluing” the jersey.
But as the squad fly home he is so much in credit that, he can live with that.
Before the series was even under way Gatland was ridiculed by counterpart Steve Hansen for having nothing up his sleeve but his arm. Hansen could not have been more wrong. It was his team that ended up not playing enough rugby.
Gatland’s did just fine.