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The best thing in rugby outside of the World Cup

The importance of the British and Irish Lions to the rugby landscape has been graphically reinforced in the last five weeks.

They will return from New Zealand with a share of the test series and a credible five win, three loss, two draw tour record.

After narrowly winning their first game against a scratch Barbarians side and losing to the Blues, a good few New Zealanders jumped on odds at the TAB betting agency that the Lions would not win another game.

They were treated scathingly by sections of the local media, with one newspaper putting a clowns nose on Warren Gatland’s face, a reprehensible piece of work that many New Zealanders feel quite embarrassed about, and which should have by now been apologised for.

Gatland had the last laugh, turning up at the final press conference wearing a red nose. He will go home to what the British and Irish media are claiming as a moral victory, even a triumph in some cases, while the All Blacks will be feeling like they lost…which they didn’t, but that’s how it must feel when you are used to winning.

It wasn’t just New Zealanders who doubted Gatland either. He was widely accused of favouring his Welsh players, particularly by the English writers who have so fallen for the mischievous charm and success, so far, of Eddie Jones.

But he had a plan, and he picked the best players to carry it out, led by Sam Warburton, the man Kiwis have most warmed to with his hard work on the field, and sheer class off it.

The style didn’t always win over the locals. It was niggly, and at times quite cynical, but it was clever.

And it wasn’t like the Lions didn’t play any attacking rugby either.

That they struggled to score tries early on was down to a short preparation, thanks to a combination of selfish English club owners and a lot of appeasing the tour sponsors.

But the more they went on, the more capable they looked of scoring enough to be competitive, and when the five-pointers didn’t come Owen Farrell was kicking goals with great precision under extreme pressure.

The All Blacks will feel they should still have won, and will need to quickly deal with that disappointment.

Despite having Sonny Bill Williams sent off just 25 minutes into the second test they had a reasonable lead going into the final quarter, only to fluff their lines and allow the Lions to level, and then cop an unfortunate penalty to lose the game.

And then in the third test they squandered at least three clear scoring opportunities that most All Black teams would have gobbled up.

That they didn’t can be put down to three things : pressure, the excellence of the Lions defence, and the absence of a couple of men, Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty, who could have calmed things down a bit.

Everyone marvelled at the way the All Blacks were able to carry on last year after losing a clutch of experienced players, the likes of Smith, Nonu, McCaw and Mealamu, but no-one has bottomless depth, and when Dane Coles, Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty were injured and SBW was suspended, the All Blacks lost some real leadership and it showed.

The upside of that is that Ngani Laumape and Jordi Barrett acquitted themselves well, and were it not for illness, Rieko Ioane might have taken the chances that right now seem beyond Julian Savea. They are three rookies you are going to see a lot of in future.

Already we have seen the British press rolling out the cliched stories about the All Blacks losing their aura (it happens every time someone gets within five points of them), but I wouldn’t be rushing to predict the demise of this team just yet. They will field a stronger starting fifteen in the Rugby Championship, they will be highly motivated after a disappointing result, and if their coaching staff are doing their job they’ll be more accurate and better disciplined.

Penalties cost them dearly, with Farrell and Elliott Daley cashing in at Eden Park with some magnificent kicks.

They lost the second test when Jerome Garces penalised Charlie Faumuina for tackling Kyle Sinckler with his feet off the ground…a heartless but technically correct decision, but Garces was to feature in an even more controversial end to the series when, after referee Romain Poite, Jaco Peyper and TMO George Ayoub had agreed a probable match-winning penalty should stand, Garces succeeded in changing his countryman's mind.

Whether it was a penalty you can argue among yourselves. The fact is, a general play decision is outside the bounds of the TMO, and once the three of them agreed Kieran Read did not illegally contest the ball in the air, then the penalty had to stand. In any case, a decision cannot be overturned without clear and obvious evidence.

Poite might be considered brave to make such a ruling against the All Blacks at Eden Park, but I suspect he was more fearful of a backlash back in the Northern Hemisphere. Not only did he bottle it, he failed to play advantage, and that probably cost the All Blacks just as much.

Such are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, swings and roundabouts for the non-Shakespearean among you, and the All Blacks and their fans will just have to suck it up and move on, which they will in time, but it is also part of sport that we can debate in such cases.

Fire away, just try and keep your comments respectful of each others' views.

It is true the All Blacks have had their share of the breaks over the years, and anyway, champion teams rarely get the sympathy of the masses when things go against them. Those who take delight in seeing the All Blacks “fail”, if that is the right word for a series they didn’t actually lose, are filling their boots.

The controversial conclusion shouldn’t overshadow what has been an amazing few weeks.

For the last month and a half the country has been alive with the throng of Lions fans, many of whom eschewed the hotel life to stay with Kiwis in their homes (often for free through the Adopt A Lion programme). Others have toured the country in camper vans, stopping to park up, have a shower and enjoy the hospitality of local rugby clubs. On Friday I had lunch with a Frenchman who had flown out just to see the match, and ran into a group of All Black fans from Sri Lanka!

The atmosphere at the grounds has been amazing, with the Lions fans clearly winning the vocal battle.

What really capped it on Saturday night was the sight of the two teams standing as one for a photo, while “rival” fans walked off into the night together. Special. Something other sports can only dream of, or try to manufacture.

The biggest upside of the shared series is that it ends any doubt over the future of the British and Irish Lions tours. A repeat of the 2005 “blackwash” would have provided much ammunition for the selfish English club owners who would gladly do away with this great tradition.

It is the best thing in rugby outside of the World Cup…maybe as good, maybe even better.

It’s your turn next, South Africa, and you have much to look forward to.

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