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Lions lacking a little bite





Lions Diary:

Game One

An underwhelming start to the Lions tour, after they scraped through to a 13-7 win over a bunch of part time professionals dressed up as the Provincial Barbarians.

It would be ridiculous to write the team off on the basis of one game, especially the first one, a match they probably didn’t spend much time preparing for. There will be much bigger fish to fry and that is where the priorities lie.

They had flown from the UK, with a stopover in Melbourne, and had had only three days in New Zealand, but even so it was an unimpressive effort against a fired up and a local side a little better prepared than they might have anticipated.

Only four players made a truly favourable impression, prop Kyle Sinckler looks an interesting beast, Taulupe Faletau lived up to his reputation, Ben Te’o looks a penetrative centre and the backline looked a lot better when Owen Farrell came on.

If there is one big concern, it is their ability to cope with the pace and tempo of the New Zealand teams. They looked a bit startled at times by the speed of the Provincial team, and will get a lot harder against the Super teams.

The media coverage has been, in keeping with the times, over the top, far too quick to condemn, and at times a bit too harsh for my liking. The need for click-baiting headlines, and unduly provocative writing is something about the modern media game I do not like one bit.

One thing is for sure, these Lions are making a far greater effort off the field than the 2005 version did, when it was all stage managed to a ridiculous degree.

They cut a fine figure at a stirring, memorable Maori welcome at Waitangi on Sunday and appear to be well versed on the cultural front, even able to respond with a song or two of their own.

And after the opening game in Whangarei, instead of moping over a less than glorious win, they swapped jerseys and had a beer with the local players.

That’s what it’s supposed to be like.

Game Two:

An early loss, early signs of trouble for the Lions and early indications that the decision to play matches against all five Super Rugby franchises is going to prove too tough.

The Blues are certainly good enough to be in the Super Rugby playoffs, and in a fair and equitable format probably would be, but they are the bottom of the five New Zealand teams. They struggled away at set piece, and yet managed to win the game with superior skills and an attack that was streets years ahead of what the Lions were trying to do.

The try scored by Ihaia West, which turned out to be the game winner, was the result of a sublime display of offloading, angles of running, and individual evasive qualities that the Lions simply do not appear to possess. Sonny Bill Williams was imperious, and may have even done enough to quieten down those who seem to almost pathologically dislike everything he does.

The Lions should still have won. They had a five-metre lineout at the end and should have been able to control it and drive it over for a try, but they completely messed it up. Their discipline was poor, although the refereeing of the Frenchman Pascale Gauzere was at times incomprehensible.

The loss shouldn’t spell doom. We still have yet to see three of their most influential backs, Conor Murray, Jonathan Davies and George North in action, and we have only seen a little of Owen Farrell.

We have yet to see anything like their strongest possible combination, and are probably not going to until the Maori All Blacks game the weekend after next, which is a risk in itself because the team right now is lacking cohesion and combination. Harder still, when they are up against Super Rugby sides that have been playing together for four months.

But the signs are not promising.

They appear to be under-prepared, and it seems like the commitments to their clubs, and the endless demanding sponsor requirements have eaten into valuable time that could have been spent on the training field.

It is also appears that Warren Gatland is going to put all his eggs in the test series basket. If they win that then what happened at Eden Park won’t matter, but they are going to have to get a lot better to have any chance of competing with the All Blacks.

######

Believe it or not we still have one Super Rugby game left before the Lions tour takes over completely.

The Hurricanes will play the Chiefs this weekend in what will effectively be a battle for second in the New Zealand conference…in other words who goes to Canberra and who goes to Cape Town or Durban.

The Crusaders have wrapped up the New Zealand and Australasian groups with a thrilling win over the Highlanders, moving to seven points clear of the Lions in the race for home advantage through the playoffs.

The Crusaders have only one game left and it’s in Wellington against the dangerous Hurricanes, but to head them the Lions will have to rely on the Crusaders losing without a bonus point. The Lions would then need the maximum from their final two games against the Sunwolves (probable) and the Sharks (a bit less probable).

The Lions must have felt they were about to get a major boost up, when the Crusaders and Highlanders were locked up with 83 minutes on the clock, but a superb 48-metre dropped goal by Mitchell Hunt got them over the line, another example of just how good this team is at playing the big moments.

Half of their wins have been by eight points or less, while it’s the second time young Hunt has come up big on the buzzer, having slotted a full time penalty to beat the Reds in round three.

New Zealand teams kept up their clean sheet against Aussie opposition this year, victories by the Blues, Chiefs and Hurricanes taking the count to 23-0 with just two to play.

The Blues took their game with the Reds to Apia, and I was lucky enough to go along for the ride to that beautiful part of the Pacific.

I was also lucky I didn’t have to pay to get in. The ticket prices were ridiculous, and apart from a few hundred standing tickets, were well beyond the means of the hard working but lowly paid people of Samoa. If the Blues lose money on the deal then it is their own fault.

If we can’t have a Pacific Islands team, then we should at least have more games like the ones in Suva and Apia, but not if they’re going to be regarded with the sort of greed that seems so pervasive in the game these days.

Finally it is noted with great interest the possibility of a couple of South African teams playing in the Pro 12 competition if they are left out of Super Rugby.

It strikes me as an excellent “consolation” for want of a better word, and obviously opens up a new door, one that South Africa has considered knocking on for some time.

The time zones make sense, and so does the legion of South African players plying their trade in Europe.

So is it viable?

Although the idea of a Trans Tasman/Pacific competition has strong support in Australia, senior All Black players have made it clear they value to experience of playing Super Rugby in South Africa as a preparation for test rugby. There are also financial concerns, South Africa being in Super Rugby certainly brings money to the table.

There would be great risks in South Africa joining Europe. For one, I still believe the rugby in Europe is nowhere near as progressive, and is not going to promote the sort of changes in approach that the Lions and to a lesser extent the Stormers have made and others need to make.

Secondly how would it fit in with the South African seasons?

I have only been in South Africa during what you (laughingly) refer to as “winter”, but do I take it that you will be asking Bath and Toulon to play in Durban in December and January?

And thirdly, do European “clubs” really want to play against South African “provinces”?

I have been to Europe many times over the past decade and have never really heard of any great interest in South Africa joining their season, but if this is happening, then it is significant.

I’d love to hear your views on how it might be made to work.


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