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Lions test won on the advantage line

This is the bit where things get a little out of whack.

Still two tests to play in the British and Irish Lions series in New Zealand, and Super Rugby starting up again in the Africa groups but not in New Zealand and Australia.

So the Super Rugby picture will get a little clouded over the next fortnight, more on that later, but let’s look back at what we’ve seen so far in the June internationals.

The first test between the All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions was an absolute belter, although the manner in which it panned out defied a few predictions.

The talk all along was that it would be a clash of styles, a battle between the razzle dazzle back play of the ABs and the forward grunt and oppressive defence of the Lions.

In fact it was the Lions who produced the most dazzling try, a stunning end-to-end effort sparked by fullback Liam Williams and finished off by flanker Sean O’Brien.

And it was the All Blacks who won the forward battle and made the best defensive plays. Oh, and Beauden Barrett, whose goal kicking was supposed to be a weak point, nailed six out of six.

The test was won and lost on the advantage line, with the All Blacks opting not so much to try and beat the rush defence, but to take it out of the equation by repeatedly turning the ball back infield to hard-charging forwards or Sonny Bill Williams.

It was, like most good rugby strategy, quite simple, but carried out with great precision and effect, thanks to the deft passing of Aaron Smith and Barrett, and the power of the ball carriers, who even when they were confronted, managed to get on the “other side” of the tackler.

Once the Lions defensive line was back-pedaling, the All Blacks could go wide without having to worry about red jerseys in their face as they got the ball.

It was a fine example of the ability of this team to change tactics according to the needs of the day and made a nonsense of the continuing presumption among many of the visiting media that the All Blacks don’t have as strong a pack as the NH nations.

Plenty of credit must go to the Lions for their full part in an absorbing, bone-rattling encounter. They did get an edge in one key area, disrupting five All Black lineouts, and they did their share of the attacking, but they will need to be a lot more physical on the gain line if they’re to square the series in Wellington.

Jaco Peyper has been praised for his efforts…of course he would be, the All Blacks won, but in all seriousness, he did a pretty good job in keeping the game moving, and while he cracked down on some of the areas the Lions coach had (frequently) voiced concerns about, he also managed to silence the juvenile shouting that has been used to disrupt the opposition line-out throw on the tour.

Tuesday night the Lions mid-weekers were denied the chance to end their tour on a high, when they were held to a 31-all draw by the Hurricanes in a match that turned into a thriller.

The Hurricanes managed to break the defence to score four tries to three, with new All Black Ngani Laumape turning in a powerhouse performance, although Dan Biggar deserves a medal for bravery for the way he stood his ground in the face of one Laumape charge after another.

Biggar also slotted four penalties, which was enough to earn the tie, while locks Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson put themselves right in the test frame with strong performances.

Henderson was perhaps the best player on the field, but was also guilty of a crime that allowed the Hurricanes to score two converted tries and level the scores as he sat watching from the sin bin.

In an incident that evoked memories of a furore 12 years ago, Henderson and one of his team mates each wrapped an arm around the leg of Jordi Barrett and lifted him beyond the horizontal.

There were no accusations of it being malicious, but it was still very dangerous, and it was staggering that French referee Romain Poite had to be politely talked by TMO George Ayoub into issuing more than a penalty.

If the Lions level the series this weekend, then Poite will be in charge of what becomes the deciding test at Eden Park, and I’m not sure there is wild enthusiasm at that prospect.

The other talking point, aside from the tedious sniping between some of the journalists, has been Warren Gatland's decision to not use his bench in this game.

Gatland was roundly criticised for hauling in six players from the touring Scotland and Wales team to fill out his squad, selections based on convenience rather than merit.

Despite a number of his players fatiguing badly, Gatland opted not to use the “ring-ins”, simply because he wanted to avoid any further controversy. Fresh legs may have saved the day, however, and it seemed a very strange decision.

Gatland is also losing ground in the media battle, after suggesting the All Blacks set out to try and injure champion half back Conor Murray at Eden Park, a claim based on a diving charge down attempt by Jerome Kaino that clipped Murray's legs and knocked him over. It was clumsy from Kaino, but to suggest he was trying to “take out” a player was drawing a long bow, and to imply an intentional campaign to hurt key players is bordering on paranoia.

Other than the media nonsense, it has become a very good tour, with the Lions supporters again turning up in huge numbers and creating a fantastic atmosphere.

We now know for sure that the Springboks are capable of mounting a very good challenge for this year's Rugby Championship, and a chance to end a two year losing run against the All Blacks.

I had to rub my eyes and head for the rewind button when Eben Etzebeth scored his try from a crazy good lineout play.

Something just didn’t look right…first thought was there had to have been a truck and trailer, or something untoward, but no, what was challenging the levels of belief was the sheer innovation….Raymond Rhule off the back of the lineout, Francois Hougaard lifting Jan Serfontein, a perfect transfer to Etzebeth, whammo!

Outrageous, and encouraging that this side is thinking outside the square.

And news that Brendan Venter is to stay on as assistant coach would have to be the icing on the cake. The success against France must be seen as a direct result of improvements to the coaching staff. It’s an interesting mix of personalities , but as long as they are on the same page then there is no reason why the Boks cannot climb back up the rankings again.

And hasn’t Serfontein looked good? Best form in a long time.

The negative has to be the injury to Warren Whiteley, which could cost the Lions dearly in the push for a Super Rugby title. They can do it without him, but such is his inspiration that it will be a whole lot tougher.

Australia’s spirits were hardly raised by an unconvincing win over Italy, and were it not for the fact that Scotland, missing their Lions tour ring-ins, were beaten by Fiji, then they would have fallen behind the Scots in the rankings for the first time.

Much has been made of the apparent lack of fitness of the Wallaby players, conveniently shifting the blame onto the Super Rugby franchises, but there is a glaringly obvious issue with discipline.

The Wallabies have conceded by far the most yellow cards of any major nation over the last year-and-a-half, and while the penalty counts are not bad, it is rare that they get through a game with 15 on the field for the duration.

Michael Cheika is a passionate man, but passion and motivation will only count for so much. As he did with the Waratahs, Cheika has encouraged his players to show more “mongrel”, but that has turned into a major weakness rather than a strength.

Their loss to Scotland was another bleak moment, bringing the Wallabies record since the World Cup to seven losses from 17 games.

They have plenty of quality players, but they are not delivering and much improvement is needed.

Finally to the staggered restart of Super Rugby, and even though the Lions, Stormers and Sharks are assured of the playoffs, there is plenty to play for.

The Lions can close the gap up on the Crusaders and keep alive their chances of topping the mythical combined log, a Sharks win could go some way to avoiding a long trip to New Zealand (I presume they’d prefer to travel only as far as Johannesburg?) and the Stormers will want to get ahead of the Brumbies in the jostling for position.

Much will depend on who can get back into gear quickly, an issue that may well prove an even greater challenge for the New Zealand teams when they come off the extended break for the Lions tour.

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