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AB v B&I Lions heating up off the pitch





As the start of the All Blacks v British and Irish Lions test series approaches, things are getting very tense and tetchy.

There’s a metaphorical war being fought on several fronts, and some of it is getting downright unpleasant.

The media battle has become very nasty.

We live in the era of click-bait, and it seems more content is written to provoke than it is to analyse.

New Zealand journalists were too quick to pour scorn on the Lions during their early struggles and some are having to backtrack as the wins start to add up.

There has been a lot of criticism of the Lions style, which is not as exhilarating as Kiwis like to see, but it is proving very effective, and let’s face it, if the Lions win the series, no-one will care too much about how pretty it was or wasn’t.

There has been an aggressive tone in some of the New Zealand coverage, and this has provoked some really nasty responses from the touring media, laced with generalisations about New Zealand, New Zealanders, and of course New Zealand rugby.

Amongst the visiting legion are some tremendous fellows, and some great writers of the game, but there is an obsession with the contrasting styles and philosophies of northern and southern hemisphere rugby, like its North and South Korea.

What really gets Kiwi backs up though is that even in this day and age there is still a minority element in the British media that tends to regard New Zealand with a lingering colonial superiority complex. Some of the comments I’ve read or heard about New Zealand's indigenous culture border on racism.

The sniping between the coaches is becoming almost an everyday occurrence, with Warren Gatland not afraid to have a few shots at his counterparts, and Hansen and co not exactly shrinking violets in that department.

Where the coach talk enters dubious territory is when it is an attempt to influence the refereeing, and it is here that Gatland has ramped up tensions this week with a string of accusations over what he sees as regular illegalities from the All Blacks that go unpunished, most notably the blocking of kick chasers.

There is no question that the All Blacks, particularly on Riche McCaw's watch, became masters at getting a line on the referee, and what he would and wouldn’t let them get away with. It infuriated opponents and opposition fans, but it was playing smart.

And that’s exactly what the Lions are doing, and they are doing it very well.

Their oppressive and highly effective rush defence frequently toys with the offside line, but they are so well organised and so quick off the mark that they are rarely penalised. It’s an accusation that has been levelled at New Zealand Super Rugby teams in recent years.

And besides, it’s not just about the speed of the rush, it’s the accuracy of their lines and the efficiency of a formation that has left no holes for the New Zealand attackers. It is proving to be a match-winner.

There’s been a lot of gamesmanship, with a passive-aggressive approach towards the refereeing, and a lot of less subtle verbal activity elsewhere.

At every opposition lineout throw they set up a wall of sound that Phil Spector would be proud of to drown out the call, create confusion and milk a penalty for delaying the throw. It is working a treat, and if it threatens Law 10.4 (m) regarding sportsmanship, then no-one has dared to invoke it.

It means there is going to be a lot of pressure on the referees, incredible pressure, and it is hoped for the sake of the series, that Jaco Peyper and his two French counterparts, Jerome Garces and Romain Poite are able to cope with it. I think we all have our doubts.

There will be controversy, there always is.

But the Lions are not just relying on set piece, rush defence and mind games.

Their attack is growing, and if they can keep the score down, it may only need one or two big moments to score match-winning tries.

New Zealanders are beginning to take this team a lot more seriously as a threat than they were two weeks ago, and those that aren’t, should be.

The other battle I guess is in the murky world of social media, which is raging with trolls and insults, but frankly, I can’t take it seriously and in no way should journalists be gauging public opinion based on what the keyboard warriors are saying.

The Lions fans have been great, and are winning the battle of the in-game supporters hands down. They are growing in number and away from the games seem to be having a great time mixing with the locals.

The All Blacks themselves look well primed after their opening hit-out against Samoa.

The Samoans came at them hard for twenty minutes, but then had no answer once the AB attack clicked into gear.

If the All Blacks can create even a third of the chances they did at Eden Park in the first test, then the Lions will struggle to stay with them, but then the Lions' whole tour strategy has been based on stymying the All Blacks attack.

It will be quite a battle, and is easily the most eagerly anticipated game of rugby since the last World Cup.

It was fun sifting through the mass of games last weekend from around the southern hemisphere.

Against a stronger French team the Springboks were just as impressive, perhaps even more so than the first test.

It’s amazing to think that this team could already be guiding South Africa out of a very bad patch, but that’s what it looks like.

The changes to the coaching setup have been key, but there is also the positivity that owes much to the Lions and their leadership and coaching staff.

Australia, on the other hand, are regressing.

Scotland got the win they should have had, and would have had but for their own botched lineout play, at the World Cup two years ago, but this was a different Australian team.

Coach Michael Cheika has some outstanding talent at his disposal, but there is something quite rotten in Australian rugby right now. I’m sure it’s not the case, but at times some of the players looked like they didn’t care.

Their discipline is atrocious, the defensive system deeply flawed, and their attack far too erratic. But the problems would appear to lie deeper and are reflective of the general state of Australian rugby.

The other team that is impressing is England, who have produced two high-scoring wins with a barely half strength team against the Pumas. There’s something not right in Argentina either, and it appears to be a knock on effect of their less than successful entry to Super Rugby.

Finally, New Zealand has at last claimed back the World under-20 title, and in quite astonishing fashion.

Whilst they had a devastating attacking group, early in the tournament their defence of the lineout drive was non-existent and their set piece shaky at best. They looked primed to be knocked out by the likes of South Africa or England with their much bigger packs.

It's testament to the work of their coaching staff that a weakness became a strength and that transformation was as responsible for their success as was the devastating running of their backs. It is worth remembering too, that New Zealand's best U20 player, Jordi Barrett, was not available.

These tournaments, however, do not tend to point to future dominance, and are quite cyclical. In a way, you’d prefer to be producing top three teams every year rather than one win every four years and nothing in between.

But there’s no doubt there are some future stars to come out of that tournament, and not just from the winners.


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