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Lions' roar deafening for Kiwis

It was during the epic comeback on Saturday at Emirates Airline Park, when momentum had clearly shifted and the Lions were on a roll, that the crowd passionately started chanting “Lions, Lions” as they urged their team on to the Vodacom Super Rugby final.

And at that moment a thought hit me – just how much damage has the Lions tag done to New Zealand’s invincibility tag this year.

Consider where we were at the end of last season - the New Zealand teams looked almost invincible – both at test and Super Rugby level, South African rugby was in a bit of a mess and England were the only real shining light in the Northern Hemisphere capable of challenging the all-encompassing dominance.

So confident were the Kiwis that they wrote off the British and Irish Lions and declared the tour to be one that could permanenly damage the brand.

“Lions tour flirting with disaster”, “What chance do the Lions have after that?”, “Lions won’t roar without Billy Vunipola”, “Media mock Lions' opening effort in New Zealand” and “Lions becoming an increasingly hard watch” are just some of the headlines from the tour from New Zealand media as they mocked, derided and continued to write off Warren Gatland’s team as they toured the Land of the Long White Cloud.

The result was a drawn test series, and in essence a victory for the Lions, who showed that not only were the All Blacks not invincible, but with the right mix of players, a good game plan and determination, the double World Champion All Blacks could be stopped.

Now you would have thought the Kiwis would have learned something from that, but shortly after Super Rugby resumed there was this pearl from Gregor Paul at the New Zealand Herald.

“With all due respect to the Lions, who play a nice brand of football and aren't a bad team at all, it will be ridiculous, bordering on wrong, should they end up being crowned Super Rugby champions in 2017,” Paul wrote on the 13th of May this year.

“For the good of Super Rugby - Southern Hemisphere rugby - the Lions can't become champions this year. It will turn a comedy into a tragedy.

And the parochial rant went on.

“By this stage of the season it becomes fairly obvious who the most serious contenders are: which teams are playing the most effective and consistent rugby.

“On that top list are the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes. Everything about them screams possible eventual winners. The usual variables - a bit of unexpected magic, a horrible mistake, a terrible refereeing call - should determine which one of them actually goes on to win.

But it should be one of those three who wins because they have the best players, the most depth, the highest skill levels, the best ability to deal with pressure and are most effectively marrying their gameplan to their respective personnel.

“These are the things that matter and in the normal course of events should be ultimately rewarded.”

Last week in a column I detailed how the Kiwi media were writing the Lions off and giving them no chance of beating the Hurricanes in the semifinal, and lo and behold, no sooner had the players left the stadium on Saturday night than the Kiwi media were going on about refereeing decisions and how the final needs neutral referees.

Now as a general concept I’d always favour neutral referees, but Sanzaar has stopped doing that system because of cost for a number of years now, and the thought that referees favour teams of their countrymen is truly a concept that is a bit ridiculous.

Talk to most Super Rugby coaches and they will normally tell you local refs are normally harder on them for the fear of bias accusations.

And anyhow, should the top referee in the competition not be reffing the final anyway?

I had to remind a New Zealand radio show on Sunday night that nobody this side of the ocean said a word last year when Glen Jackson refereed the Lions-Hurricanes final and is a Kiwi? We accepted that Sanzaar rewarded the best ref in the competition at the time with the final and got on with it.

It has also been interesting to see that not only South Africans were surprised at the lack of respect that the Lions have been shown, but Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd echoed this after his side’s loss on Saturday night.

“It did, it probably showed a lack of respect to be honest. We don’t control the media obviously and it probably helped the Lions that they were written off so heavily, but I was surprised,” he said in response to the wholesale disregard for the Lions’ chances.

While the Rugby Championship may jolt us back to reality because to be honest, the Boks still have a way to go, the damage inflicted by the two Lions’ brands on the Kiwi dominance is an encouraging sign.

It is good for world rugby and it is good for the competition as a whole. And while the debates on the format may persist, there is a fairytale ending that could well take place if the Lions can repeat their performance on their home ground a second time this week.

It may drive the New Zealanders mad to know they cannot simply accept victory as a given, no matter how good they have been in the past.

And in terms of world rugby, that isn’t the worst thing that can happen to the game.

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